05/09/2012 10:38 EDT | Updated 07/09/2012 05:12 EDT

B.C. seniors' care system overwhelms families

As B.C.'s senior population grows, family members are often left navigating the seniors' care system — a system they say is confusing and time-consuming.

New Westminster resident Rebecca Maurer's long and complicated journey through the system began in 2006 when her mother was diagnosed with a progressive neurological illness.

"It was very difficult for us both because of the complexity of her illness and also her age. We wanted, ideally, to have her in a setting that was close to us so that my sister and I could both be involved in her care," she said.

"The problem was that in our community, there were no public beds available and so she was placed in North Burnaby, which is about a 30-minute drive for us ... We were travelling back and forth trying to be involved in her care but it didn't meet her care needs for a whole bunch of reasons."

At Fellburn Care Centre, Maurer's mother shared a room with a 92-year-old woman with dementia. Maurer's only option was to place her mother on a waitlist for a bed in New Westminster.

"My mum's illness was progressing and we knew that we had a limited amount of time to spend with her," she said.

"We were desperate at that point, and I started calling around. I called Continuing Care begging them to move her up the list. I also visited both the facilities in New Westminster asking if there was anything they could do to bring her closer to us and they weren't able to do that."

Liquidating assets

Maurer eventually moved her mother to a private facility in New Westminster — at a cost of $7,000 a month.

"That was not part of the financial plan and in fact, we knew we were doing it probably against my mother's wishes. That's not what she had wanted. But we wanted her to be close to us," she said.

"We liquidated everything that we could ... and we decided that we would keep her there as long as we were able to do that."

Maurer says she found the system confusing and illogical.

"It's a difficult system to navigate and what my sister and I found is that even for us [working] in the health care system, we found it incredibly difficult to navigate so I can't even imagine what it's like for the average person," she said.

"The other thing is that I have a lot of regret about how much time I ended up spending navigating the system, advocating for my mum's care instead of doing what I should have been doing, which was spending time with her."

Seniors' advocate and consultant Barbara Kirby says she hears from families in the same predicament all the time.

"When they're calling, they're calling because they're in crisis and they're not able to get the right information they need ... or they're just not getting through to the people on the phone lines or they just don't know who to call," she said.

"Sometimes it's, 'We need help with housing, we don't know what would be the best kind of place for mum, we're not getting the right answers from the doctors and the hospital, can you help us? We just don't know where to turn.'"

Kirby says it can be overwhelming for any family member, and recommends those who are unsure about navigating the system consult an advocate who can work on their behalf.

Health authorities say they do their best to accommodate patient needs, but care beds are a scarce resource so patients are moved into the first bed available.