Canadians are rapidly losing faith in the ability of the health system to provide care for their aging loved ones and they want the federal government to step up and find solutions, two new public opinion surveys show.

Fewer than one in four believe there will be adequate home care and long-term care facilities, and just one in three think there will be sufficient hospital beds available to meet their basic medical needs as they age, according to a poll commissioned by the Canadian Medical Association.

At the same time, three in five of those surveyed do not feel they are in a good position – financially or otherwise – to care for aging family members in need of long-term health care.

The CMA, which represents Canada’s 80,000 physicians, residents and medical students, is holding its annual meeting in Halifax this week, and it is using the occasion to press all federal parties to commit to adopting a national strategy on seniors’ care.

“We don’t want little election goodies with a seniors’ theme; we want a commitment to a long-term strategic plan,” Dr. Chris Simpson, president of the CMA, said in an interview.

“Everyone already has horror stories in their families, and when they hear the doomsday stats, they really get worried about the future,” Dr. Simpson said. “Seniors’ health care is an issue that is really starting to resonate across the generations.”

A second poll, commissioned by the Canadian Alliance for Long Term Care (CALTC), found that just 18 per cent of citizens believe that hospital and long-term care homes would be able to meet the needs of the aging population, and only 20 per cent think there will be enough trained staff to provide adequate care.

The CALTC survey also showed that the top three concerns about the health-care system are long wait times for surgery, lack of access to long-term care and insufficient home-care services.

Candace Chartier, chief executive officer of the Ontario Long Term Care Association, agreed that public angst is growing. “How we are going to care for our aging population is the No. 1 concern of Canadians,” she said. “The public realizes what’s coming down the pipeline and they’re frustrated that governments aren’t reacting.”

In fact, both polls showed that voters want the federal government to take a leadership role on seniors’ care, but they also realize this has to be done in conjunction with the provinces.

In the survey conducted for the CMA, 89 per cent said the next prime minister needs to make addressing the health needs of Canada’s aging population an “urgent priority,” while the CALTC poll found that 93 per cent believe Ottawa has an obligation to ensure Canadians have equitable access to care, regardless of where they live.

A significant number of those surveyed, 57 per cent, said that how they vote in the Oct. 19 federal election will depend, at least in part, on which party has the best plan to address seniors’ health care.

Seniors now represent 15 per cent of the population, up from 8 per cent in 1971. By the time all of the baby boomers have reached 65, they will make up an estimated 25 per cent of the population.

While this demographic shift is having an enormous impact on demand for services, the health system has been slow to adjust and is struggling to keep pace.

The result is seen, among other things, in the rationing of home care, ever-worsening shortages of nursing home and long-term care spots, hospital beds filling up with frail seniors with nowhere else to go, inadequate hospice and palliative-care services, and stubbornly long wait times for surgery.

Dr. Simpson stressed that the answer to these woes is not necessarily more money but delivering care differently by, for example, shifting spending from institutional care to home care, and placing much more emphasis on prevention.

“Seniors today want to age well at home and in the community, and health-care professionals (and politicians) need to tune in to those aspirations,” he said.

The CMA poll, conducted by Ipsos Reid, surveyed 2,008 Canadian adults between July 20 and 24. It is considered accurate to within 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. The CALTC poll, conducted by Nanos, surveyed 1,000 Canadian between June 18 and 20. It is considered accurate to within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

HALIFAX — The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Aug. 24, 2015 12:01AM EDT
Last updated Monday, Aug. 24, 2015 12:01AM EDT