03/05/2013 04:44 EST | Updated 05/05/2013 05:12 EDT

Seniors In Alberta Nursing Homes To Get At Least Two Baths A Week

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EDMONTON - Alberta seniors living in nursing homes are to get at least two baths a week.

The government announced Tuesday it has changed its bathing standards for all continuing-care residents in the province.

There was previously no guideline setting a minimum number of baths. Last November, government critics said they were shocked to hear residents were getting an average of one bath a week.

The province then promised a review.

"This is more than an issue of health and hygiene for the residents of our continuing care facilities. It is an issue of dignity, " Health Minister Fred Horne said in a news release detailing the change.

The government said two baths is now the minimum and, if residents need more, they will get them.

"Our expectation has always been that staff in our care facilities monitor and respond immediately to personal care and hygiene needs," said George VanderBurg, associate minister of seniors.

Wildrose health critic Kerry Towle said it was only a few months ago that health officials argued one bath a week was appropriate. Although there was no set minimum, some care homes had informal policies that residents should only get one bath per week.

"It's incredible how long this government dragged their feet on the issue," Towle said.

"It shouldn't take months of political pressure and public outrage for a government to do the right thing when it comes to the dignity and health of Alberta seniors."

In its news release, the government cited one care home in Edmonton that has set its own bathing guidelines and has been giving its residents at least two baths per week since 2008.

The government also said it is changing the definition of a bath. Because some people can't tolerate baths or get in and out of tubs, sponge baths and showers will also count.

The new standard is effective immediately, but facilities will be given some time to adjust staff schedules, buy new equipment or make renovations.

Glen Scott with the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees said he supports the new bathing rule, but he thinks it's pointless unless the government is prepared to fund more care home staff.

"Many seniors must be lifted carefully in and out of their tubs by more than one person. Bathing must be done gently and thoroughly. Each bath takes time," he said.

"It's all well and good to raise the standard but, if there's no way to achieve the new standard, it's an empty gesture."

Scott added that the province is about to implement a new funding system for seniors care and dozens of facilities are expecting to see their funding reduced.

Liberal member of the legislature Kent Hehr initially raised the bathing issue in the legislature after visiting a Calgary care home and hearing complaints from seniors. He said he's happy with the change.

"I will be cautiously optimistic until I see the practice in place with the proper funding to go with it."

NDP Leader Brian Mason echoed the concern.

"Until the government cares enough to ensure that sustainable funding is in place for staffing levels at Alberta seniors' care facilities, the government can't guarantee the level of care seniors need," Mason said.

"Staff at many of these facilities are already stretched much too thin and an improved policy can't cover for adequate staff."

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