These two advocates are looking for help to change B.C.’s long term care system - InfoNews

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These two advocates are looking for help to change B.C.’s long term care system

Geir Larsen and Joan Guenther are fighting to get government to improve living standards in long term care homes.
Image Credit: Submitted/Geir Larsen
August 12, 2020 - 6:00 AM

Geir Larsen and Joan Guenther both lost their spouses in the same care home and have been fighting ever since to make it and other such facilities better places to live.

But they need a lot more people to raise their voices before there’s any hope of significant improvements.

“Joan and I have been talking about this quite a bit,” Larsen told “I think, what needs to be done is we contact every organization, every union, every group in the province and come under one banner and work on the government because now, you have the people behind you. You have the numbers to refer to. You have clout."

Not that they’ve failed in all their efforts.

A couple of years ago, Guenther needed what she was told was emergency gallbladder surgery. That was on a Tuesday. By Friday she was still waiting in Nanaimo Regional General Hospital and told she would have to wait through the weekend.

Larsen raised a fuss and she got her surgery that day. But, more importantly, the complaint they filed seems to have triggered reforms into how surgeries are scheduled in that hospital.

They’ve not seen similar results with the Dufferin Place Care Facility that is attached to the hospital and where their spouses moved into back in 2014 and 2015.

For Guenther, her husband Mel suffered from dementia, finally being placed there in June 2015 before dying on Nov. 30, 2018. By then, Larsen’s wife Jeannie had already been there eight months. She suffered from Alzheimer’s and died on July 28, 2016.

They became friends and he advised her to keep her eyes open. It didn't take her long to notice the neglect of residents by staff.

“Almost 95 per cent of the problems were due to the fact that there wasn’t enough staff to do the job,” Guenther said. “It was not being helped when asked for a little bit of assistance. Call bells were ignored. Staff were spread too thin. They could not look after the minor details. You could really see the shortage in care, but it was not the fault of the staff.”

She recalled an incident when one care aid was responsible for feeding three people at two different tables. He would walk up behind a woman at one table, scoop up a spoon of food, stuff it into her mouth then head back to the other table.

The resident rebelled and refused to eat.

For Larsen, he ended up taking over the feeding of the three other women at his wife’s table.

One day, just after getting out of hospital for surgery, one of the women asked for his help as she was sliding out of her wheelchair.

“I turned to some of the staff that was around and said, ‘you’ve got to come and help Maggie, she’s falling out of her chair, she’s half way out of her chair,’” he said. “They just turned to me and said, ‘we don’t have time. We’re feeding.’ I went off and found the head nurse and I said, ‘either you fix this pronto, or I’m calling licencing.’ I had my cell phone in my hand. Immediately there were three people on her and the situation was fixed.”

But, he said, he lost track of the number of times he intervened between residents physically fighting with each other or falling down.

At one point there was a tour of the facility by a group of senior Vancouver Island Health Authority staff and politicians. Workers were given clear directions on what to do and how to behave. Even the manager, who was rarely seen on the floor, was out pushing residents in wheelchairs and chatting with them.

“I just about puked,” Larsen said. "What impression did that delegation go back to Victoria with? Well, that it is the greatest place in the world.”

They know of two cases where residents likely died prematurely from the lack of staffing. In one case, a man fell out of bed at night. No one knows how long he lay on the floor before he was found. He never recovered.

In both cases, the families did not want to speak up or complain, fearing retaliation while their loved ones were still alive and not wanting to make a fuss afterwards.

READ MORE: Fear of retaliation keeping people from speaking about issues in B.C.'s long-term care homes

“The general consensus is, I’m happy and we’re comfortable where we are and we’re kind of too old to do anything about it,” Guenther, who is 80, said. “I’m OK, you’re OK.”

Even though their spouses are no longer living, Larsen and Guenther have kept in touch with families and have focussed their efforts on lobbying politicians in Victoria for changes.

Whether it’s the politicians or the managers at the care home, the results are the same.

“They pretended to listen, but they didn’t hear one word,” Larsen said. “They walked in with blind eyes, deaf ears, and closed minds.”

To Larsen, it’s a matter of having to follow the money. He complained that Vancouver Island Health has nine vice-presidents and 5,000 staff that are paid more than $75,000 a year.

He’s drafted a letter that he would like to take to Nanaimo City Council, and other local governments on the Island, to get their support to lobby the government to make changes.

He’s working with others on the Island to get the message out but, at 75, he’s not prepared to travel throughout the province and doesn’t have an organization in place to lobby beyond the Island.

In fact, the only organized groups advocating for changes in long term care that has been able to find are on Vancouver Island.

READ MORE: Want changes to B.C.’s long term care system? Talk to this doctor

Larsen’s letter is in draft form at this time and he's not, yet, ready to release it.

But he and Guenther are determined to continue to be squeaky wheels until real changes are made in the system.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a focus to some of the shortcomings in the long term care system in B.C. and throughout Canada but it remains to be seen if changes will be made.

The provincial government has put money into the system so all workers get the same pay and no staff member works at more than one site. asked the Ministry of Health if and when a review of the long term care system will be done. They have yet to respond to that question but did send these comments Health Minister Adrian Dix made during a COVID-19 update on May 28.

“We are going to focus on continuing to improve access in the system, including the need to rebuild (long term care) facilities that are older in BC to modern standards. The need to have a plan to improve health and human resources and the number of people working in long term care, which we are going to need in the future, a new generation of health care workers. We are encouraged to involve everyone in a serious, focused, practical effort to improve the lives of residents and to improve the work of workers in long term care. That's what should be important right now and that's what we are committed to do.”

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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