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Summerland woman helping empower families of seniors in care

Heather Stuckey and her mother, Melva Austin, who died last fall while living in long term care.
Image Credit: Submitted/Laurie Kenzie

It’s been more than a decade since B.C.’s ombudsperson recommended family councils be strengthened in care homes and enshrined in legislation.

And it’s been well over a year since B.C.'s. Seniors Advocate said essentially the same thing.

Now a small group of Summerland and Salmon Arm women have created the Interior Association of Family Councils as part of a burgeoning province-wide movement.

“There’s a lot of people who don’t know about family councils and what they do and how they’re good at a site and can accomplish a lot,” Heather Stuckey, chair of the association, told iNFOnews.ca. “Our main goal is to get a family council in every facility where families want one.”

Stuckey’s mom, Melva Austin, lived at the Summerland Retirement Village for 11 years, first in assisted living then the last six in long-term care.

She died in October 2021 at the age of 90.

Stuckey has been chair of the family council there for years and, despite the problems the facility has faced – Interior Health put it under administrative supervision for 17 months in 2020-21 – she said it has always been very supportive of the family council.

READ MORE: Interior Health ending oversight role at Summerland long-term care home

For Stuckey, and so many others, COVID was a driving force behind changing how they viewed the world of long term care and the importance of family councils.

The councils are a concept that is written into Ministry of Health policy and encourages families to work “for a common purpose related to the care facility.”

Family councils are not required, not funded and actively discouraged in some care homes.

READ MORE: How seniors advocates can help fix long term care in B.C.

In December 2009, provincial Ombudsperson Kim Carter released a report that called on the province to “entrench an expanded role for resident and family councils in legislation or regulation” by March 31, 2010.

That didn’t happen.

A decade later, in Nov. 2020, B.C. Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie released her report after surveying 13,000 residents and family members in long term care in the midst of the COVID lockdown.

One of the three recommendations that came from her report was for the provincial government to create a provincial association of family councils. She estimated it would cost about $500,000 referring to that amount as “not even pocket change.”

That hasn’t happened yet. In the meantime, Stuckey and other like-minded people have moved ahead on their own.

“During COVID, when I was forced to not work, I got to thinking, there’s got to be strength in numbers and there’s got to be other chairs of family councils out there,” she said.

She started trying to contact family councils in other facilities owned by Retirement Concepts, which owns Summerland Seniors Village and numerous homes around the province, including Kamloops and Williams Lake.

In the process, she got in touch with Kim Slater, the chair of the Vancouver Island Association of Family Councils. For the longest time it was the only organized group of its kind in B.C. and Slater has been encouraging other regions to become more active.

Now, there are fledgling councils in each health region and a Family Councils of B.C. association that’s coming together through zoom meetings and phone calls.

The Interior group is inviting everyone from the Interior Health region, which stretches from Williams Lake to Cranbrook, to get in touch and join up.

Already it has shown some success after a woman contacted Stuckey about not being able to form a family council in a West Kelowna facility.

“I could see she was getting nowhere with the manager at the site so, under my hat as Interior Region Family Council chair, I wrote a letter,” Stuckey said. “It was very positive. I explained the positiveness of family councils for her (manager) as well as for families and the value of working together. So they’ve actually established a family council there.”

A key impetus to getting the drive for more family council associations, aside from Slater’s ongoing efforts, was the lockout rules imposed by the provincial government during COVID.

Stuckey’s experience was the same as hundreds of others in B.C. She was locked out of Summerland Seniors Village even though she qualified as an essential visitor because she fed her mother.

“I know for a fact my mother wouldn’t have died of dehydration if they had let families in,” Stuckey said. “At the time, my mother was without a bath for three weeks. I was furious. Something’s got to change. That was a long time ago. But I was angry. I’ve been angry a few times but yelling and screaming doesn’t get you anywhere. It’s a difficult place to start at because everybody’s then on edge. It’s just human nature. I try to be as understanding and diplomatic as I can while still getting my message and needs across.”

READ MORE: Kelowna woman trying to ensure seniors in care are treated better than her mother was

That’s the value of having an organized structure where issues are dealt with on a less emotionally-charged basis.

While the whole provincial movement is being driven largely by volunteers, government is paying attention.

Last week, Stuckey met with representatives from Interior Health and had nothing but praise for the response she got from them.

“It sounds like we’re all on the same page and working together,” she said. “I’m really excited about that. They’ll have a little more clout than just your average family council chair.”

If, for example, Stuckey calls a care facility and starts asking about its family council, she would expect to be asked: “Who are you?” The same request from Interior Health would likely trigger a different response.

At this stage, the health authorities are waiting for clear direction from the Ministry of Health on how they are going to help develop family council associations.

That’s not stopping the regional councils from organizing and creating a provincial umbrella organization.

The Interior Association of Family Councils can be reached by email at interiorfamilycouncil@gmail.com and their Facebook page is here.

Councils in the other regions can be reached by email at Fraser Association of B.C. for the Fraser Health region, Northern Association, Vancouver Coastal Association and Vancouver Island.

The Family Councils of B.C. can be reached by email at fcobc@gmail.com.


To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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