Senior Profile: Hon. Sharon Carstairs Joins Order of Canada for Her Work in Palliative Care in Canada

The Hon. Sharon Carstairs has politics in her blood. Her father was MLA for Halifax and later became the premier of Nova Scotia.  Among other accolades, Sharon followed her father’s footsteps and became the Leader of the Government in the Senate in 2001 and served until December 2003. She was also appointed to the Senate to represent Manitoba. She has long championed senior’s issues, particularly palliative care.

Recently she became a member of the Order of Canada. SeniorsZen spoke to her about the honour and about her work and hope for palliative care in Canada.

SZ) Congratulations.

It is exciting obviously. I hope that it will be interpreted as a welcome thing to those who have worked tirelessly in the senior’s community and the palliative care community because those are the things for which I was given the award.

Q) Why are senior’s issues really important to you, particularly palliative care?

I began to work in palliative care decades ago. I did not like the way in which my mother died because her wishes, signed in a resuscitative order, were not respected. That began my step towards ensuring that Canadians had a right to make decisions about the treatment they received at the end of their lives. That lead me also to realize that it wasn’t just dying that was difficult for many in our society, the whole aging process was very difficult. Frequently because they didn’t have enough money to buy the things that they needed in order to enjoy their lives fully, or there wasn’t adequate housing for them. The whole raft of issues that we know have still not been dealt with in Canada.

I think some things are getting better. When I started the journey with respect to palliative care only about five per cent of Canadians had access to palliative care. It is now probably between 30 and 35 per cent of Canadians who have access. So, some things are progressing. Are they progressing fast enough? Of course not. We have yet to accept that we are living in an aging society and we must ensure things are in place to protect our aging population.

Q) Is Canada heading in the right direction in terms of palliative care?

I think that there are good things happening in the field of palliative care. Unfortunately, to this date we still don’t have a national strategy on palliative care. We had one almost fully developed in 2003 when I was replaced as government leader of the Senate and Minister for Special Responsibility for Palliative Care. It has made virtually no movement since that time. Without a national focus, which would make sure there is a learning centre that spreads the knowledge of the good things that are done across the country and also alerts people to the inadequate things that are not being done, then you won’t have palliative care meeting all the needs and objectives of Canadians who are dying in Canada.

Q) Are you hopeful that there might, at some point, be much better care?

I am hoping so. There is a piece of legislation before the Senate now. It passed the House of Commons and it passed with all party support calling for such a national strategy. But even if that legislation passes it is going to require the government of the day to ensure it is a reality. I mean it is one thing to say, ‘Yes, we have an Act.’ It is another thing to say, ‘Yes we now have the programs to match that act.’ We have to wait and see to some degree whether this is going to work its way through the bureaucracy and make things happen. When I worked in 2001 and 2002 to get the Compassionate Benefit under EI everyone said that couldn’t be done. Yet we managed to do it in less than a year. So, things can happen if you have the right people in place making sure that things move forward. But only time will tell whether those people are in place at the present time.

One of the really serious needs for seniors, and particularly middle to low-income seniors, is appropriate accommodations. We know that there are still people in nursing homes that don’t need to be there if they had adequate supports in the community. I congratulate the current government in working out health accords that yes gave the provinces money, but targeted it for home care services and palliative care services and mental health services. Because without targeting that money simply wasn’t going to be spent in those areas, in my view. So that was a giant step forward, and if the provinces in fact match that funding then you will see significant improvements.

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