03/19/2014 02:44 EDT | Updated 05/19/2014 05:59 EDT

Isobel Mackenzie, B.C. Seniors Care Advocate, Is Canada's 1st

Beacon Community Services

VICTORIA - British Columbia has appointed Canada's first seniors' advocate, but the Opposition New Democrats maintain the government missed the opportunity to have a truly independent champion for seniors.

Isobel Mackenzie was appointed Wednesday by Health Minister Terry Lake to head the Office of the Seniors Advocate, fulfilling a government promise to ensure a strong voice for the province's 700,000 elderly residents.

Lake said Mackenzie, a Victoria care administrator with 20 years' experience working with and serving the elderly, can help create and deliver policies and services that meet the complex and numerous needs of seniors.

"I will not shrink from the responsibility I have to advocate for the seniors in this province," she told a news conference in Vancouver.

Mackenzie, who is also a former Victoria school trustee, said the Seniors Advocate Act ensures she must advise the government in an independent manner. She said the law states she must meet with the health minister at least once a year and that her report to the minister must be made public.

New Democrat health critic Katrine Conroy said she supports the creation of the seniors' advocate position, but the post requires more teeth to allow the advocate to work more independently of government. An independent person would be able to investigate the individual and systemic needs of B.C.'s seniors, Conroy said in a statement.

"There is a very real need for this position, as seniors across the province face both individual and systemic problems and struggle to get the care they need and deserve," she said. "We also have called for a strong and independent advocate that would be able to stand up for seniors without being encumbered by the reality of being employed by the people whose decisions she is evaluating."

One of the first questions Mackenzie faced at the news conference was about reports of an 87-year-old patient who was forced to wait eight hours in the emergency room at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster.

"It's important to set out right from the beginning that the expectation of the seniors' advocate office is not that we will respond to individual concerns," Mackenzie said. "My job would be to look at how often does that happen. What are the themes behind it? Is there a system-wide issue that is causing these situations to happen?"

She said much of her job would be recommending remedies for issues involving seniors.

Tragic individual cases of seniors with dementia wandering from their homes and others being found malnourished in hotels or choking to death while being fed by caregivers were making headlines as the Liberals considered creating the advocate position.

The advocate post also resulted from a sweeping report by Ombudsperson Kim Carter who made 176 recommendations to improve the lives of B.C.'s elderly.

Carter's 448-page report, The Best of Care: Getting it Right for Seniors in British Columbia, also contained 143 findings. It concluded a three-year investigation into seniors care in B.C., making recommendations to improve home and community care, home support, assisted living and residential care services for seniors.

The government responded to Carter's report promising to focus on six areas, including establishing the position of a seniors advocate to ensure a more accessible and transparent approach to caring for seniors.

As the chief executive at Victoria's not-for-profit Beacon Community Services, which provides services to 7,000 seniors, Mackenzie said she knows the challenges and choices seniors and their families face.

"Through the office of the seniors advocate, I will be looking at what is working, what should be improved and what are the emerging issues for the future," she said.

Lake said about 130 people were considered for the seniors advocate position. The budget for the Office of the Seniors Advocate will be about $2 million a year and Mackenzie will earn an annual salary between $170,000 and $190,000.

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