Island Voices: Immigration can cure B.C.’s senior-care crisis

Forget the doctor shortage. There is a greater crisis looming in an aging British Columbia, and current immigration policy is making it worse. Seniors are losing the care they need because facilities can not hire enough staff.

As an executive and project manager working in health care for 17 years on Vancouver Island, I am aware of the need for all health-care professionals. However, the need for healthcare attendants (known as HCAs), who are responsible for 80 per cent of the senior care provided 24/7, is of epic proportion.

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B.C. is going grey at historic record levels, as is the rest of Canada. By 2030, one in four people will be over the age of 65. On top of that, people are choosing to have fewer babies. This equates to fewer new people taking the place of aging citizens, and population decline means fewer workers overall.

Updating immigration policy and programs can solve the massive shortage of HCAs. However, immigration levels and policy do not support bringing in enough foreign workers to fill these roles. We should all be terrified that there is no realistic plan in place to hire the HCAs needed in B.C. to ensure seniors have safe, quality care.

The Conference Board of Canada points out that we must use immigration to fill the current and coming labour demand. But not enough is being done to satisfy the need. The Advisory Council on Economic Growth called for immigration numbers above the current objective. Yet the immigration target has been set far below what is essential.

The grey wave draws attention to new needs. Senior care will be the fastest-growing sector of the B.C. economy in the next five years. This growth will be accompanied by a massive 17,000 HCA job openings.

HCA staffing shortages will only increase each year with impending retirements. To fill the void, staff take on double shifts, then burn out. The senior-care system is only becoming more overwhelmed as the province ages. We need to look to immigration to solve this crisis.

Immigration programs are not aligned with job demand. The Provincial Nominee Program and Express Entry system lean 57 per cent towards welcoming professionals who hold one or more degrees, such as doctors. However, B.C. labour reports show that 61 per cent of openings are for positions, such as HCAs, that require certificate-level training.

Immigration policy creates employment barriers. Existing programs do little to support bringing in foreign workers to fill HCA roles or facilitate immigrants to train as HCAs. Foreign HCA credentials are slow to be recognized, taking up to a year or longer. As well, the HCA registry process is complicated and difficult to navigate.

Insufficient HCAs have grim consequences. There are increasing reports of senior neglect. For instance, on Vancouver Island, three privately run senior facilities were taken back by the health authority. As it stands, the Advocate for B.C. Seniors points out that 95 per cent of all senior-care facilities have HCA shortages and 86 per cent cannot meet the Ministry of Health’s minimum staffing guidelines.

Space shortages hurt all of us. Many of us have personal stories of our elderly loved ones struggling to access appropriate and timely care, sometimes with heartbreaking outcomes. In my hometown, a senior caught in this struggle was left to fend at home. When a space was finally available, this elder was rescued from deplorable conditions of squalor and hygiene. Sadly, this is not an isolated situation.

A shortage of HCAs means families become caregivers. The Canadian Medical Association reports at least three in 10 people will become caregivers for an elderly family member. British Columbians face unprecedented stress as they juggle family, work and caregiver commitments. Recently, a friend of mine was forced to leave her own career in health care to provide full-time care for her elderly parent.

The federal and provincial governments need to work together and need to act now to update immigration policy to align with HCA labour shortages. At the same time, government must invest resources in immigration programs that facilitate HCA post-secondary training, expedite existing credential recognition and support immigrant integration.

These initiatives will fill HCA jobs. Bold steps are needed to fill these HCA jobs to provide the senior care that B.C. desperately needs. Otherwise, I wouldn’t recommend getting old anytime soon.

Susan Fox lives in Port Alberni, and as a health-care leader and a daughter of aging parents, she is passionate about senior care.

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