Canada

A firetrap that sprang reform

David Thomas July 28 1980
Canada

A firetrap that sprang reform

David Thomas July 28 1980

A firetrap that sprang reform

Back in 1966 when René Lévesque was welfare minister in a Quebec Liberal

government, he was dismayed by the state of a nursing home he toured in the remote village of Notre-Dame-du-Lac. He would later describe it as “an unbelievable firetrap" and “scandalous to such a point that it bordered on the criminal.” Unfortunately for the home's aged residents, the Liberals were turned out of office scant weeks later, and the privately owned Repos du Vieillard continued to operate—until the early hours of Dec. 2, 1969. Then, with just one person awake—an untrained female supervisor in her first night on the job—fire erupted in the laundry room. In the chill light of morning, firemen retrieved 38 bodies from the ashes, almost none of them identifiable.

The conflagration shocked the conscience of a province that had once enjoyed an extensive and inexpensive welfare system run by the Roman Catholic Church but that, with the church’s decline, saw vital social needs being unscrupulously exploited by private entrepreneurs. A government investigation reported in 1970 that some profit-motivated nursing homes even

resorted to "abusive sedative practices designed to cut down the supervision load” and reduced residents “to a strictly vegetative life, if not to the level of brutes.”

Impelled by such revelations and by the knowledge that thousands of other elderly Quebeckers were living in firetraps as bad as that of Notre-Dame-du-Lac, the provincial government determinedly established a vast web of publicly run homes and eliminated subsidies to private establishments. Now, nearly every neighborhood and village has its modern centre d’accueil where 5.2 per cent of Quebec’s over-65s live

under professional, nonprofit supervision. The government’s goal is to provide space for six per cent of the aged population, and by 1981 there will be 317 separate homes with space for nearly 30,000 persons who pay a maximum $14.55 per day. The price depends on personal income, and every resident keeps at least $90 a month pocket money.

So attractive are the publicly run homes that their biggest problem is keeping at bay persons who do not yet need the subsi-

dized care which this year costs taxpayers $238 million. Says the social affairs department’s Joseph Cecil Kilfoil: “Some people who are still physically and financially able to care for themselves apply years too soon.”

Even the best in public services hasn’t eliminated exploitation of the elderly: socalled "clandestine homes” continue to sprout like mushrooms in the midden of human selfishness. Families simply wanting to rid themselves of relatively young and healthy parents who don't qualify for government homes have kept unlicensed private operators in business. In one rural clandestine home visited last week by Maclean's, seven men lived with no recreation but television and were maintained on a twice-daily diet of macaroni. Their meals and housekeeping were provided by a woman so exploited herself that she earned—for seven days’ work a week with no days or evenings off—$100, or just about what she had been receiving in welfare support before she was hired with the lure of free room and board. Still, she and her charges were better off than the many elderly persons who, victims of an old Quebec tradition, are literally dumped at hospital emergency wards every Friday night by their children who want a weekend or holiday free of the folks. David Thomas