Former health minister Minister Doug Graham admitted that building a new continuing care centre in the Whistle Bend subdivision is not ideal during a charged town-hall meeting hosted by the Yukon NDP this week.
“I agree with you when you say the location is not that good,” the former minister of Health and Social Services told the crowded room at Hellaby Hall on Wednesday evening. “I agree with you.”
Many Whitehorse residents who spoke at the meeting expressed concern about the chosen location for the 150-bed facility, including Tamara Goeppel, who said downtown locations should have been considered instead.
“Why not put that facility in prime location, by the river, where people have memories?” she asked the crowd. “Who in this room has a memory of Whistle Bend?”
But Graham insisted that “there isn’t any space downtown.”
“We searched and searched.”
He said the government considered a vacant site at Fifth Avenue and Rogers Street, but city council was opposed to the lot being used for the facility.
Earlier this year, Goeppel filled out an access-to-information request and found that four sites were originally considered for the centre, in Porter Creek, Riverdale, Copper Ridge, and Whistle Bend – not downtown. While Porter Creek appeared to be the best option, Whistle Bend was ultimately chosen.
In an internal email, assistant deputy minister of continuing care Cathy Morton-Bielz advised against the Whistle Bend location, writing that “the optics of placing a care facility in an empty field is really a nightmare and will haunt the government for far longer than a bit of community opposition.”
Premier Darrell Pasloski later defended the decision, arguing that the Porter Creek location would have required blasting bedrock in an established community.
Dr. Ken Quong, president of the Yukon Medical Association, spoke as one of the panellists at Wednesday’s meeting. Afterward, he told the News that several smaller, more publicly accessible locations might be preferable to a single facility.
“I would rather see the project go ahead done right than done because we’re worried about some kind of timeframe,” he said. “I’m not certain that I couldn’t wait two years for the land to be remediated somewhere downtown to allow it to happen downtown.”
Willy Shippey, former director of extended care at Copper Ridge Place, the 96-bed continuing care centre, said if it were up to her, she would build several small facilities instead of a large one in Whistle Bend. She said the Copper Ridge facility can be isolating and that transportation to and from the centre is a problem.
“The last thing you want a facility to do is remind you that you’re sick and alone,” she said.
The location of the continuing care facility was not the only topic up for debate at Wednesday’s event.
A number of people called the proposed centre institutional, and compared it to a warehouse for the elderly. Some called for more resources to be allocated to home care, and for more supportive independent housing for seniors, which would allow them to live independently with some assistance.
Judy Butterworth, whose parents are aging at home, said her father has made it absolutely clear that he doesn’t want to end up in a continuing care facility. But that means her mother spends much of her time caring for him, and her health is suffering as a result.
Butterworth said her parents would like to live at a supportive independent living residence that has been proposed by the Vimy Heritage Housing Society.
“My parents would love Vimy to be open,” she said. “They want to be there. Their hands are up to be first on the list. I don’t know if they’ll make it.”
But Quong pointed out that there is a great need for more continuing care, in one form or another. He said up to a third of the beds in the Whitehorse hospital are filled at any time with people who don’t belong in acute care, but have nowhere else to go.
And as the population ages, the problem will get worse. “I think the longer people live with the current rates of dementia, the more long-term care beds will be needed.”
As for concerns about shipping elderly people from the communities to a facility in Whitehorse, Quong said home care can improve people’s quality of life for as long as it can be managed. But he cautioned that it can be very difficult to find enough qualified staff to allow people to age in place in the communities.
“I do think that it’s really difficult to find the long-term care and home-care staff,” he said. “We are always importing people from Whitehorse or B.C. or the rest of Canada. So I do think it’s not very realistic to think that every small community can have a long-term care facility.”
A recent Yukon government news release said the Department of Health and Social Services is currently meeting with seniors to discuss plans for the Whistle Bend facility.
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