Seniors’ centres can do more as wellness hubs, top geriatrician says

OTTAWA — Ontario has nearly twice as many seniors’ activity centres as hospitals, but they remain overlooked and undervalued for the role they play in keeping older adults healthy and out of institutional care, says the government’s point man on seniors’ care.

Dr. Samir Sinha is proposing to give Ontario’s 272 seniors’ centres a higher profile and, perhaps, greater role as storefront hubs of preventive care, which, he says, would help reduce admissions to the province’s 151 hospitals and relieve pressure on its 618 nursing homes.

In the long run, facilities such as Ottawa’s Good Companions Senior Centre even have the potential to save an aging province from out-of-control health spending, which last year topped more than $48 billion, Sinha said.

He hinted that the elements of a 21st-century seniors’ centre could include programs geared to exercise, nutrition, chronic-disease management and prevention of falls. Making such aspects of healthy aging available to more seniors could help reduce or delay the number of years they spend in illness or frailty, while also curbing sharply rising health-care budgets, Sinha said.

He would also like to harness the potential of seniors’ centres to function as one-stop shops where older Ontarians can find information about health services such as home and respite care.

“We have a huge untapped resource in seniors’ centres,” Sinha said in an interview. “These are not places that are delivering health care per se, but wellness and prevention activities, which are things that we know are important in helping older adults stay well and stay healthy longer.

“We have an opportunity to say, ‘How can we better support these hubs of wellness to grow in numbers and serve more and more older adults?’”

Sinha’s idea is part of a plan he’s developing for the Liberal government to support more seniors living at home.

The Toronto-based physician, who is the director of geriatrics at Mount Sinai Hospital, is criss-crossing the province to gather public input on ways to help older Ontarians stay healthy and live at home longer. His tour stops in Ottawa on Tuesday, when he is to meet with area seniors groups, hospitals and community-service agencies.

Sinha is expected to present his recommendations to Health Minister Deb Matthews by the fall.

Long treasured by seniors — and underappreciated by health-service providers — as places for wellness and companionship, the province’s seniors’ centres also provide good value for money, Sinha argues.

The provincial health ministry spent $11 million last year on seniors’ centres, while hospitals received more than $15 billion and nursing homes another $3.4 billion. The centres serve an estimated 245,000 Ontario seniors, and many save taxpayers billions in potential health-care costs by not being major consumers of expensive services at hospitals and other facilities, Sinha said.

Indeed, a large number work as volunteers at seniors’ centres, answering phones, counselling other seniors, running exercise and hobby classes and raising money to keep those centres running.

“The fact that we spend so little money and get so much in return just speaks volumes,” Sinha said.

The centres are also places for seniors who feel isolated and lonely to find friendship. Such connections help the elderly avoid depression, which can spiral into physical frailty and even dementia, Sinha said.

Mississauga’s Square One Older Adult Centre has introduced an on-site social worker, who offers counselling and support for seniors with mental-health issues.

The service is free to the centre’s members and doesn’t cost the centre extra money because the social worker, employed by another community-services agency, simply uses the centre as clinic space.

“It was a win-win because the social worker was funded to meet this seniors’ need, but the seniors weren’t comfortable going to another organization’s office,” said Sue Hesjedahl, the centre’s former director.

The service shows that seniors’ centres can do more to promote wellness without necessarily costing the government more money, said Hesjedahl, now executive director of the Older Adults Centres’ Association of Ontario, representing 134 seniors’ centres provincewide.

Instead, more existing health services could easily be redirected to seniors’ centres. “Health-service providers can make more of what they do available by bringing them to where the seniors go,” Hesjedahl said.

Debbie Wilson, chairwoman of the association, suggested better links could also be established between seniors’ centres and hospitals that provide rehabilitation services for patients recovering from heart attacks or strokes.

“Even sharing some cardiac-rehab exercise programs that the hospital or health-care sector has approved of would be a great opportunity,” Wilson said.

Source: The Ottawa Citizen

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