LETHBRIDGE, ALTA. -- In what the prime minister is calling “extremely troubling,” a military report accuses several Ontario long-term care homes of negligence and appalling conditions for people living there.

The report details first-hand accounts of cockroach infestations, patients crying for help while staff stood idle, residents not being bathed for weeks and being forcefully fed, and COVID-19 patients allowed to wander freely.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, COVID-19 outbreaks at long-term care homes are responsible for about 80 per cent of Coronavirus-related deaths in Canada.

But even before the pandemic, it was evident that residential care homes were a setting stretched far too thin,” said Dr. Sienna Caspar, Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge. “We need to have them much better resourced.”

Over the past 20 years Dr. Caspar has worked in, or consulted to residential care facilities, along with conducting research.

She said it’s heartening to know, that the quality of care, and quality of work life in long-term care homes is finally getting the attention it needs. “But I’m also heartbroken that it took this.”

Dr. Caspar said in many cases, staffing ratios and tight schedules prevent staff from providing the quality of care they would like. “They get in the door, and it’s like they’re on a treadmill on full speed, and they hope they don’t get sped out the back.”

Dr. Sienna Caspar

She said what’s needed, is a system that values the lives of the people living in the homes, and values the lives of the people who are providing the care.

Through her research Dr. Caspar has developed a culture for change model that supports “person centred care.”

She said the experts in what can be done, and how best to do it, are the people working in the homes.

“You can’t improve the quality of care in these organizations, without simultaneously improving the quality of work life for the people who are providing it.”

Knowing that facilities have limited budgets, Dr. Caspar set out to create a model that was affordable and could be easily implemented by staff. Her model has been tested in residential care settings in Alberta.

The Brenda Strafford Foundation, which operates four senior care facilities in the province, has used the model to make a number of changes, including person centred meal times, recreational therapy and rehabilitation programs.

“I strongly believe one of the strengths of her model, is really that it is practical and relevant,” said Navjot Virk, the Foundation’s Research and Innovative Practice Manager.

Virk said the Brenda Stafford Foundation has done evaluations with residents and families, “They’re seeing a greater relationship among staff, families and residents, and they’ve been actively involved in bringing forward ideas.”

As a result, the foundation has taken the model a step farther, by hiring Process Improvement Team Coordinators at each of its sites.

Dr. Caspar said it’s important not to lose site of the fact, that there is amazing care happening, by care givers who are trying to do the best they can with limited resources.

But COVID-19 has exposed the challenges workers face.

“If we can get the will politically and personally to make changes, then at least that’s one good outcome from this,” she said.

Dr. Caspar will spend the summer putting the model into a web-based platform. The College of Licensed Practical Nurses of Alberta has provided $25,000 to create the online format, and make it available at little or no cost to all residential care providers.