A proposal from the Nova Scotia NDP to create an advocate for seniors in the province is well-meaning, but not needed, according to a seniors’ group.
The NDP introduced legislation on Wednesday to create this role, which leader Gary Burrill said would be “dedicated 100 per cent to advocating for the interests of seniors.”
“We are one of the oldest populations in the country,” he told Global News in an interview.
“When we’re talking about seniors, we’re talking about one major hunk of the demographic composition in Nova Scotia, so the interests of seniors are really a paramount matter in our province.”
The seniors’ advocate would have an office responsible for providing an annual report to the legislature, which would be tabled with recommendations to improve the lives of seniors.
Burrill said the pandemic has especially highlighted the issues seniors face. Over the last two years the province’s older population has grappled with isolation and loss of income, he said.
The advocate could also help draw attention to the adequacy of care, such as home care and long-term care, said Burrill.
“The pandemic has really shown us that a voice advocating directly and exclusively for seniors is something that would be useful in Nova Scotia,” he said.
Bill VanGorder, the senior spokesperson for the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP), says he’s glad to see seniors’ issues getting attention in the legislature, but said much of this work is already being done.
The Seniors’ Advisory Council of Nova Scotia, formerly known as the Group of IX, is made up of an elected body of volunteers representing nine seniors’ organizations across the province, including CARP.
“This group meets every month and brings reports, recommendations, questions and suggestions to the government on behalf of Nova Scotia seniors every month,” said VanGorder.
‘Trying to reinvent a wheel’
The organizations involved with the council represent more than 100,000 seniors across the province.
VanGorder said the group advises the government through the minister of seniors and the department’s staff, and worries the appointment of an advocate would reduce the ability of older Nova Scotians to deal with the government directly.
To his knowledge, neither CARP nor the seniors’ advisory council was consulted before the NDP legislation was brought forward.
“We have people making decisions for older Nova Scotians, not with them,” VanGorder said.
“Once again, we ask the question, when will those who believe they’re doing well by speaking on behalf of older Nova Scotians actually consult older Nova Scotians?
“I would have appreciated the opportunity to have this discussion earlier, and maybe we could have found some ways to talk about improving the existing system rather than trying to reinvent a wheel that’s already there.”
Other provinces like New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, and British Columbia have seniors’ advocates, but VanGorder said “they don’t have organizations with the direct link to government, (like) the seniors’ advisory council.”
“We don’t need it in Nova Scotia,” he said of the seniors’ advocate role.
However, Burrill said having an advocate would help amplify some of the issues being brought forward by seniors.
“There are lots of very effective seniors’ organizations in the province – I’m not minimizing that in any way – which do very strong, powerful advocacy for the interests of seniors. That’s important,” the NDP leader said.
“But I think it would be helpful for that to be augmented by an office which had the sole purpose of advancing that advocacy.”
Advocate has ‘more teeth’
In neighbouring New Brunswick, the seniors’ advocate has powers that advisory councils do not, according to the person holding that role.
Kelly Lamrock, New Brunswick’s child, youth and seniors advocate, described his job as similar to a specialized ombuds position. He said he can help resolve cases involving seniors and vulnerable adults, particularly those in care or those receiving government services.
But Lamrock said he also has full investigative powers and can push the government for change on systemic issues.
“The advocate has sweeping power to call witnesses, to demand documents, to get information, and then issue a public report saying, ‘Here are some of the systemic failures that need to be addressed,’” said Lamrock, who took over the position in February.
He pointed to a report from his predecessor that found that the death of a long-term care resident after three assaults was preventable.
The report included 13 recommendations in the areas of resident protection, major incident reporting, complaint process, staff training and communication.
“Something I’ve done with that report, since coming in, is making sure we have a process to update those recommendations directly to MLAs, so that there’s at least constant public awareness and pressure on MLAs to review and deal with them,” said Lamrock.
“Obviously, in the end, elected people make the decision, not government watchdogs. But we can make sure that the information (and) recommendations are public.”
While advisory councils may do specialized research and can provide input on policy, advocates’ offices have a “little more teeth,” Lamrock said.
VanGorder acknowledged Nova Scotia’s senior advisory council does not have these kinds of investigatory powers, but said there are other bodies to investigate such incidents, and said he is more interested in “a more co-operative approach.”
“I think that the positive input that the government can get from an advisory group in the long run is much more useful and much more often implemented than just criticism and finding fault,” he said.
In a statement, Marla MacInnis, the spokesperson for the Department of Seniors and Long-term Care, said the department meets with the Seniors’ Advisory Council on a monthly basis, and it’s “one of many stakeholders the department regularly meets with to discuss topics impacting older Nova Scotians.”
“Collectively, these conversations help guide decisions made by the department,” she said.
“The department believes that hearing from as many people as possible is the best way to improve the lives of older Nova Scotians. Having a diversity of opinions and perspectives helps us deliver programs and services in a fair, inclusive and equitable way.”