07/31/2012 06:53 EDT | Updated 09/30/2012 05:12 EDT

Dementia care centre in southern Alberta victim of age: province

EDMONTON - Health officials say while the closure of a dementia care centre in a southern Alberta community is regrettable, but the building is simply too old and underused.

Dave Shorten of Alberta Health Services said Tuesday that for years staff and maintenance crews have been fixing problems as best they could at the Little Bow Continuing Care Centre in the village of Carmangay, north of Lethbridge.

But time has caught up to the 54-year-old structure, he said.

Shorten said the roof needs to be replaced. Some of the bathrooms aren't wheelchair accessible. Some of the patients are sharing four to a bathroom.

The plumbing is old cast iron. The elevator needs overhauling.

The fire alarms and emergency buzzers to summon nurses are no longer supported by the manufacturer. Replacement parts are hard to find.

There's asbestos in the walls and work is needed to improve the air- handling system.

"The building does need major upgrades" said Shorten, acting vice-president of rural and community issues for the Calgary region.

The closure, announced earlier this month, has raised larger issues of urban versus rural and the best way to deliver care to seniors.

The centre is the major employer in the village, 65 kilometres north of Lethbridge. Area residents and families of the patients have held two rallies to protest the closure and to voice concerns that they were not consulted.

Opposition politicians from the Wildrose, the NDP and the Liberals have rallied to the cause. They suggest Little Bow is the first step on a dangerous slope that is leading to Premier Alison Redford's government abandoning rural regions and closing care beds at a time of shortages.

Shorten said rural regions are not being abandoned. He noted that new care centres are going up in High River, Okotoks, Strathmore, and Nanton — all in southern Alberta.

He said the Little Bow Centre was being kept open even though more and more patients weren't coming from the immediate area but from as far away as Calgary and Edmonton.

"For many years we've been importing people from outside that catchment area to fill that facility," he said.

"The strategy now is we're trying to build newer facilities and beds closest to where people need the beds so they don't have to travel as much."

The facility has 20 beds but currently has 18 patients being cared for by 36 staffers.

Shorten also noted the physicians who care for the patients must drive from Vulcan, 35 kilometres away.

The plan now is to make the transition as painless as possible, he added.

Patients have all indicated their first choice for relocation and won't be moved until the bed they want is open. Any furnishings from the centre will go with them to lessen anxiety over new surroundings.

Guy Smith, president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, has 26 of the Little Bow staffers in his union and said he wants more information on why the centre must close.

"I know the government is saying it's an older building and that sort of thing, but it did have a thorough safety inspection in March that gave it glowing feedback," said Smith.

The shutdown is generating more questions than answers, he suggested.

"They (staff) have been told that layoff notices will start coming in a few weeks. (But) if patients are not going to be moved (by then), you still need staff there to provide the services."

Smith called the process frustrating.

"It's a typical AHS mess that there's never, ever clear direction on where they're going," he said.

"They sort of make it up as they go along. And the sense of uncertainty for everyone involved is just creating even more havoc."