TORONTO – A bill that would enshrine the rights of couples to live together in Ontario’s long-term care system has passed a key hurdle, and the politician who introduced it hopes it will become law later this year.
New Democrat legislator Catherine Fife‘s bill -dubbed the Till Death Do Us Part Act – would amend the provincial long-term care bill of rights to keep couples together even if their health needs are different.
Currently, many couples are split up because they are aging at different rates and the separation creates stress for the seniors and their families, Fife said.
“The fact that people who have been married for over 30, 40, or 50 years can’t spend their last years together is the ultimate litmus test for how broken the long-term care system is,” she said.
The private member’s bill passed second reading in December with rare unanimous support from the Progressive Conservatives and will now come before a legislative committee for review.
Fife said she decided to take action after hearing from hundreds of people in her Waterloo, Ont., riding about the extensive wait for long-term care spaces and families being separated because of the bed shortage.
Ontario needs more seniors’ facilities that provide a range of care and address everything from complex to basic retirement housing, she said.
“This is, unfortunately, a legacy of neglect around long-term care,” she said. “My plan is to keep up the pressure on the government when we return to the house.”
In a report released in October, the province’s fiscal watchdog said the number of long-term care spaces in the province virtually stagnated between 2011 and 2018.
The Progressive Conservatives have promised to add 15,000 new beds but the Financial Accountability Officer also found that it won’t be enough to stop wait lists from growing.
Wait lists for long-term care spaces are projected to peak at 40,200 people in 2021, dropping to about 37,000 once new beds planned by the government come online in 2023-2024, the report said.
While Fife’s bill received government votes in December, it must still pass a third and final reading before becoming law.
A spokeswoman for Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton said the government will further examine the bill in the coming months.
“We understand how important this issue is for many families across Ontario, and we remain committed to examining how we can keep loved-ones together in long-term care,” Rebecca Bozzato said in a statement.
Jim McLeod lives in a retirement home in Cambridge, Ont., and has been separated from his wife, Joan, for over two and a half years.
Joan suffered a stroke and needed a higher level of care which meant she had to move to a home in another part of the city.
The 80-year-old drives each day to visit, but admits the situation is hard for both of them. He worries that if he could not drive they would be further isolated from one another.
“We’ve been married 61 years and it’s pretty difficult,” he said. “It becomes a real challenge and it affects both of us emotionally.”
Kathy Ziegler said her parents, Don and Pat Oberholzer, have been separated for about four months and in that time they’ve both grown depressed and their health has deteriorated. Don was diagnosed with colon cancer and the couple was separated after his care needs grew more complex than their retirement home could provide.
“He doesn’t understand why they can’t be together,” Ziegler said. “Being married for 66 years, this is hard for them. They rely on one another. It’s heart-breaking.”
Ziegler said she hopes that Fife’s bill will help focus the government on coming up with a solution that keeps families together, aging in the same home, even with different needs.
“For my parents, when they got married they said their vows and they meant them,” she said. “It is ‘until death do us part. In sickness and in health’.”