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Watching the Watchdog: The Scary Truth About Senior Abuse

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Tim Knight writes the regular media column, Watching the Watchdog, for HuffPost Canada.

There's this old guy I met occasionally in the elevator on my way to work whose inevitable response to my polite "good morning" was always a brusque "any day you wake up -- and you're not in some old folks' home -- is a good morning."

Haven't seen him all this winter. So assume maybe he didn't wake up one morning or they've carted him away to the old folks' home he was trying to avoid.

According to a recent documentary from CTV's W5, the old man's instinct was right on.

At 46 years old, W5 is the longest running newsmagazine documentary program in Canada and claims to be the most watched. It's executive producer is Anton Koschany who's got a long and impressive record of investigative reporting behind him, has been nominated for six Gemini Awards for Best News and Information Series, and won two of them.

Like The Fifth Estate over at CBC, when W5 rakes muck, people pay attention. If it's focused on some particularly egregious wrongdoing by the authorities, many urgent meetings are held, much time is spent passing blame, and whole legions of public relations flacks start working on something called "plausible denial."

It will be difficult to plausibly deny last Sunday's edition of W5, titled "Crisis in Care" and anchored by the hugely experienced Sandie Rinaldo. It's very, very scary.

Rinaldo starts off talking to the viewer on-camera, setting the traditional golden years scene.

"When you picture a long-term care facility or a nursing home in your mind, what do you see? If you're like most people, probably a serene place where seniors are busy with activities or taking it easy. Well, increasingly it seems that ideal image is nothing but a mirage."

Violent confrontations between seniors in day care, she says, "are now commonplace."

"In fact, our investigation has discovered that in one year alone more than 10,000 seniors suffered abuse in nursing homes at the hands of their fellow residents. It is a crisis in care. And it appears the homes and government are unable or unwilling to deal with it."

According to an article written for its investigation, W5 filed access to information requests with 38 provincial and regional health authorities asking about resident-on-resident attacks. It got back hundreds of pages of documents "detailing everything from incidents of verbal threats, pushing and slapping, to punching, choking, sexual assaults and even homicide."

"Crisis in Care" concentrates on two examples.

There's Frank Piccolo who's 68, confined to a wheelchair, suffers from Parkinson's and dementia. He's living in Toronto's Extendicare Lakeside Long Term Care Facility, one of Extendicare's 243 for-profit seniors' care centres in North America. It's where he's brutally beaten by another resident who also suffers from dementia.

Police are called, decide not to lay charges.

The local police commander explains: "That is the exclusive jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health. They oversee long term care homes, not the police."

Piccolo's wife Theresa calls Lakeside negligent, questions if nursing homes are above the law.

"I don't understand why nursing homes can't be charged with a criminal act when something like this happens. I mean, someone was assaulted."

Rinaldo tries to interview the Ontario minister responsible for long-term care, Health Minister Deb Matthews. But Matthews is too busy. So, being a good reporter, Rinaldo finds out that the minister's scheduled to attend a Liberal Party event in Toronto and ambushes her outside.

Rinaldo (Showing pictures of Piccolo covered in blood): "I have a few questions for you about violence in nursing homes and why there are no serious consequences when a long-term care facility is found to failed in its duty to protect residents."

Matthews (Showing every sign that she's been well prepared for the question): "You know, it's absolutely heartbreaking. And absolutely unacceptable. This is, you know, one of those very, very rare cases and a reminder that we must always continue to do better ... What I can tell you is that I take my responsibility as Minster for care in long-term care homes extremely seriously. Extremely seriously."

Then, on the other side of the continent, there's Elsie Rogers who's 73, suffering from dementia who lives in the Normanna long-term care facility.

Another patient, a man, hits her, punches her in the stomach and knocks her to the ground, shattering her hip. She ends up in a wheelchair.

Karleen Harkness (Rogers' daughter): "They broke her. And they broke more than just her ability to walk. They broke her spirit. She was a phenomenal woman and she didn't deserve that violence ... Someone has to take accountability. I mean we put someone that we love more than anything -- into an area that we thought she would be safe in. I blame the nursing home."

Rinaldo takes a hidden camera into nursing homes, asks about the ratio between staff and patients. Answer: one in eight.

Miranda Ferrier (President of the Ontario Personal Support Workers' Association [PSW] which staffs many of these institutions): "Every time we hear one in eight, it makes us want to laugh. Because I have yet, in all my years working as a PSW, to come across one to eight. That would be a dream. An absolute dream ... they're lying. They're really lying!"

A PSW colleague: "Out there, through our association, we've heard of one to ninety-nine."

I have no doubt that most long-term care homes do good work. That they perform a valuable service looking after our old, our sick, our weakest and most vulnerable, during our last months and years.

But I also have no doubt that some don't. That W5's research is dead accurate. That there are many old folk's homes in this country where greed overtakes common humanity. Where far too few staff have to look after far too many residents -- some of whom suffer from dementia and are dangerous to both themselves and the people around them.

One day, of course, we will all be old. One day, all our bodies and minds will deteriorate and fail.

I don't think we're asking too much -- if they do have to cart us off to one of those homes -- to want to live our last years there safely and with dignity.

My guess is that if the old guy in the elevator had watched "Crisis in Care" and had a choice, he'd have chosen not waking up one morning.

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