British Columbia’s first seniors advocate — the first position of its kind in Canada — has been tasked with shaping the future of how the elderly, their advocates and their families access services and address concerns in the province.
Isobel Mackenzie was appointed to the role March 19, making her B.C.’s first seniors advocate as laid out in the provincial government’s Seniors Advocate Act. She officially starts on March 31. She is charged with acting as the voice of seniors in B.C. to monitor and review system-wide issues affecting their well-being.
Already, Mackenzie has been busy, fielding questions, granting interviews and working with a $2 million annual budget to set up her office.
She is also transitioning out of her job as executive director of Victoria’s Beacon Community Services, a position she has held since 1995. She has been a frequent visitor to Sidney and the Saanich Peninsula in that role and in helping shape BCS into B.C.’s largest not-for-profit community and senior-serving organization.
While the task of setting up her office is a high priority at the moment, Mackenzie said she wants to meet with seniors, advocates, families and supporting organizations early in her mandate.
“I want to hear from seniors, the government and the opposition,” she told the News Review in an interview March 20. “I want to hear what people think are the issues and the priorities.”
Mackenzie, who comes to the job with more than 18 years of experience working on behalf of seniors at various levels, said she plans on holding meetings over the first few weeks after the end of the month. She said her office will need to prioritize the issues that come up.
“This office has the ability to create a council of advisors, as it’s laid out in the Act,” she added. “This council will represent a broad cross-section of people from various socio-economic backgrounds, cultures and geographical areas.”
Tapping into her experience and resources, Mackenzie said one of her main roles will be to help bring together a fractured system of seniors’ supports. Realizing that the Seniors Advocate could be inundated with individual requests or concerns, she said there needs to be a way to reach people with the tools to access every option available to them.
“There needs to be a better job done in telling people about their rights, the services that are available and how each of their choices has consequences, good and bad. People right now have a difficult time navigating through that system.”
Her office, she said, cannot deal with individual cases. Instead, Mackenzie said she must consult with advocacy groups and seniors on a broad scale to determine where concerns lie across the province. That being said, Mackenze said she sees the advocate’s office as a resource, where people can turn to be pointed in the right direction.
“We do not investigate individual complaints,” she explained. “There are organizations like consumer protection, health authorities and patient review boards that deal with specific issues.
“There are always going to be individual issues, but I will be consulting mostly with groups.”
People can turn to the office of the advocate in times of need, she added. What will happen, is they will be directed to people who can help.
B.C.’s new seniors advocate advises the government, working with other officers of the legislature as well. This gives Mackenzie a degree of independence from government. She said reports generated by her office will be given to the minister in charge (the health minister), who in turn must make the report public. The minister, she continued, can also approach her on issues of the day.
While she could not predict if there will be battles between her office and the government of the day, Mackenzie said she is willing to fight.
“I am prepared for that,” she said. “I take this seriously, the obligations of the Act. It’s important to represent the interests of seniors, not those of the government.
“That being said, I cannot recommend things that would simply be impossible.”
B.C. has 700,000 residents over age 65 and that number is projected to double over the next 20 years, by which time seniors will make up nearly a quarter of the population.
The appointment of the advocate by Health Minister Terry Lake meets a commitment in the province’s 2012 Seniors Action Plan. That promise came after the B.C Ombudsperson issued a highly critical report in 2011 on problems in seniors’ care with 176 recommendations that critics say have largely been ignored.
Opposition New Democrats, who have called for a seniors advocate since 2007, said the government hasn’t given the new advocate enough power and independence to act as a strong champion. The enabling legislation indicates problems specific to an individual senior, rather than broad system-wide issues, are likely to be referred elsewhere.
“This advocate is not empowered to look at individual issues facing seniors,” NDP seniors critic Katrine Conroy said. “These individual issues often signal systemic problems.”
Mackenzie said her independence from government means she is also tasked with setting up her office, which does not yet have a phone number. There’s also no physical office and no staff at this time. Mackenzie said she has a strong budget to be able to get it all in place. Right now, information can found at www.gov.bc.ca/seniorsadvocate.
“It’s going to be very busy.”
— with files from Jeff Nagel/Black Press