COVID-19: Pandemic in B.C. heightens importance of family councils in long-term care

‘We have to have a way to network provincially so everyone is not operating in silos,’ says Vancouver Island association’s chairperson

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The COVID-19 pandemic has convinced more family members than ever of the importance of having a recognized voice in long-term care, according to the head of the province’s only regional family care association.

Kim Slater, chairperson of the Vancouver Island Association of Family Councils (VIAFC), said he’s 100 per cent in agreement with a late 2020 recommendation by Isobel Mackenzie, B.C.’s seniors advocate, for the Ministry of Health to work with her office to create a provincewide association of family councils.

“Family councils don’t want to make policy,” he said.

“They do want to be involved in the discussion of policy so they can provide their insight and experience so that the policies that we come up with are good for residents.”

Membership in family councils typically includes family care-givers and residents in a care home. While most of the province’s 293 long-term care homes have a family council, they can vary from independent, elected councils to ones operated by individual care homes.


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Slater said a recent story in The Vancouver Sun about family councils “exposed the tip of a very large iceberg.”

“During the pandemic, people have been frightened at the vulnerability of their family member and how decisions were being made in long-term care,” he said from Lantzville on Vancouver Island.

Slater said he’s been contacted by independent family councils in all B.C. health authorities — Vancouver Coastal Health, Fraser Health, Northern Health and Interior Health — who want a “guaranteed voice in the decisions that are being made in individual facilities, in health authorities, and within the Ministry of Health.

“This has to be better. We have to have a way to network provincially so everyone is not operating in silos.”

Slater said the VIAFC has family council members from 13 municipalities in Vancouver Island Health, the regional health authority for Vancouver Island.

His involvement with family councils started when his mother went into a home in nearby Nanaimo around 2008. His family council was so active it was one of the ones contacted by Ombudsperson Kim S. Carter when she was researching her 2009 report on long-term care that included recommendations on the importance of creating family councils in maintaining the quality of care of residents.

When Slater linked up with people in a similar situation in long-term care facilities in Victoria, he realized that his concerns were shared by others.


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“To gain more authenticity, we organized a regional association of family councils,” he said. “There hadn’t been one in B.C. before and still isn’t one besides us.”

Slater said that initially he thought, perhaps naively, that the Ministry of Health would use the association as a resource.

“It didn’t turn out that way,” he said. “Time after time, they had these great initiatives that included every other stakeholder except the very people sending people into long-term care and paying the bills.”

When long-term care facilities were closed due to COVID-19, many people in the industry came to realize how important family members were in providing practical, day-to-day help to residents. When a family member helps with tasks such as eating and personal grooming, for example, care aides can focus on residents who don’t have family members to help them.

Slater said some long-term care facilities do recognize the importance of independent family councils. Others, he said, don’t, and go to the extent of ignoring or marginalizing them.

“Managers can do it in a variety of ways,” he said. “They’ll refuse to advertise meetings for independent family councils. They’ll tear down posters that are put up by family members to meet as a council.”

He said when some long-term care facilities control the family councils and set the agenda as well as chair meetings, it has the effect of “stifling really important conversations often coming from elderly people who are afraid to complain.”

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