Marguerite Blais, Quebec minister responsible for seniors (photo: Kristine Berey)
From her more than 30 years in radio and television, Marguerite Blais, Quebec minister responsible for seniors, knows that seniors' issues are not the most popular of topics. She says keeping her program on the reality of aging running in 1979 — something she managed to do for 6 years — was a real challenge. "Nobody wanted to hear about that," she recalls. "It would have been good then to adapt society to aging. They thought 2000 was far away, but it was not."
Now in her ministerial role that she says fits her "like a glove", she is determined to give the seniors the attention they deserve. Last August, in an unprecedented gesture of genuine respect, Blais brought the government to seniors across the province in a series of public consultations on seniors' living conditions. From last August to November, accompanied by retired McGill social work professor Sheila Goldbloom and Dr. Réjean Hébert, dean of the Faculty of Medicine of the Université de Sherbrooke, Blais asked seniors in 26 cities to express their needs and their concerns.
The response was positive, with over 4,000 people expressing their views. Groups working on behalf of seniors presented 267 briefs, and 3,375 calls and emails came pouring in.
The completed report on the consultations, Préparons l'avenir avec nos ainés, (soon to be translated) confirms what many already knew — seniors want to remain independent and do not wish to be segregated or discriminated against. When they do need care, they want to retain their dignity and the right to a decent quality of life.
Sheila Goldbloom is satisfied that seniors were heard. "The results of the consultation are reflected in the budget."
On March 19, when Blais unveiled the government's response to the report, she announced several immediate and long-term measures that addressed the most urgent issues, including more funding for home support, help for caregivers, better training for staff and improving the food at long term care centres. Next year, an action plan to combat abuse and neglect will be released and both private and public senior residences will need certification by January 2009. As well, a campaign will be launched to combat ageism, in French on television and in English on the radio, acknowledging seniors' contributions. Far from being a burden to society, seniors' volunteer work represents about $3.1 billion a year and their tax contribution stands at $2.2 billion a year, based on a 2006 study.
Blais is the first to say that these measures are only a beginning and believes that the welfare of seniors is everybody's business. "We have to do things every day to make sure seniors have a voice," she said. The government will be working closely with community organizations advocating on behalf of seniors, Blais said. "They are important partners."
Information kiosks and telephone access to services to seniors are in the works, with a Carrefour d'informations being planned in conjunction with the Cummings Centre sometime next year. "We are pushing for anglophone seniors to have services in their own language," Blais said.
Helen Wavroch, executive director of the Réseau Québecois pour contrer les abus contre les aines (RQCAA), a group that works to prevent elder abuse, hailed the government initiatives. "This is a minister who has managed to make things move," she said. "I felt there was, for the first time, a definite will and desire on behalf of the government to correct some of the wrongs that exist in the senior community." She disagrees with those who claim the measures didn't go far enough. "I know what Minister Blais has accomplished. She had to negotiate with her counterparts in government and get the other ministers involved in actions concerning seniors. Now that the ball has started to roll, it can't go back. That's what excites me."
When asked if he was happy at the announcements, Norbert Rodrigue, of the Association Québecoise de défense des droits des personnes rétraitées et pré-rétraitées (AQDR) answered "I cannot be unhappy." But he added that the issue of abuse and neglect is a great challenge that must be met.
Diane Lavallée, Québec's Public Curator responsible for the protection of 11,500 citizens who are incapacitated and have no family, and for the support of 11,200 legal guardians of other non-autonomous individuals, felt the announcements clearly demonstrated the government's intent to improve seniors' quality of life. But Jacqueline Racicot, in charge of communications for the Public Curator's office, says it's important to remember that not all those who are unable to care for themselves are seniors. "All private residences, including those that house and care for persons who are not necessarily elderly but are incapacitated must also follow the strict criteria for care and housing."
Herb Finkelberg of the Cummings Centre said that the Centre's interactions with Blais were extremely positive. "We remain cautiously optimistic and we'll be following the issues very closely."
In various capacities Blais has advocated for seniors, youth and the poor for many years. She has also written two books on the culture and history of the deaf community. When asked what struck her most at the close of the consultations, she answered, "I learned that we don't love enough." To the suggestion that society's lack of compassion is nothing new, she says, "Yes, but I'm in a position to say it louder."
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