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BC’s First Seniors Advocate Steps Down

Isobel Mackenzie championed older people for 10 years. A look at her impact, and what’s next.

Andrew MacLeod 5 Feb 2024The Tyee

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's legislative bureau chief in Victoria and the author of All Together Healthy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018). Find him on X or reach him at .

B.C. political parties are in rare agreement on Isobel Mackenzie’s significant contributions in her 10 years as the province’s first seniors advocate.

“The advocate has done a remarkable set of work for seniors in British Columbia,” said Premier David Eby.

“She’s seen big changes, to her credit, though she continues to push for more support for seniors and has been a relentless advocate for them,” Eby told The Tyee in a December interview. “I know it will be difficult to fill her shoes and I’m grateful for the work she’s done for seniors in B.C. And it will be interesting to see what she does next.”

Mackenzie is retiring. In late January, the government announced that Dan Levitt will start April 4 as the next advocate. He is the CEO at KinVillage, a not-for-profit care facility in Delta. He is also an adjunct professor in gerontology at Simon Fraser University and teaches in the school of nursing at the University of British Columbia.

BC United Leader Kevin Falcon and BC Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau also expressed their appreciation and gratitude for Mackenzie’s work, as did advocates, even as they argued the position needs to be strengthened.

Leslie Gaudette, president of the Council of Senior Citizens Organizations of BC, or COSCO, said there was excitement when the government appointed Mackenzie and that she has kept up her energy and enthusiasm right through to the end of her term.

COSCO includes 70 affiliated organizations and represents some 80,000 members.

“A lot of us would have liked to see a more robust response from government on recommendations that she made,” said Gaudette, who lives in Langley and served on Mackenzie’s advisory council during her first four years as advocate.

While the government seemed to listen to Mackenzie, it was often slow to act on her advice, she said, adding that the position would be even stronger if it reported directly to the legislature, not to the health minister.

Gaudette said she appreciated Mackenzie’s focus on the unmet needs of low-income seniors, and how the advocate met with many seniors and the organizations representing them. Mackenzie brought back what she heard and developed it into insightful reports.

Important work, but not enough led to government action

The seniors advocate is responsible for monitoring services for older people, analyzing them and making recommendations in five areas: health care, housing, income support, community support and transportation.

Andrew Longhurst, who focuses on care for seniors as a health policy researcher at Simon Fraser University and a research associate with the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said the government created the seniors advocate position thanks to a strong push from seniors groups, the BC Health Coalition, unions and others.

There was much optimism when the government created the position, Longhurst said, and with Mackenzie filling it for the last decade it has lived up to expectations.

It’s an important role and he’s grateful for the work she has done, he said, but he added that not enough of it led to the government making real improvements to services for seniors. “We’ve seen some movement, but it’s been pretty spotty.”

Tangible improvements to care homes and day programs

In Jan. 26 remarks recognizing Mackenzie’s work and announcing the appointment of Levitt, Health Minister Adrian Dix pointed to the change that came from Mackenzie demonstrating that most care homes in the province failed to meet staffing standards.

Since the NDP formed government, the standard has increased from 3.08 hours per resident daily to 3.51 hours, Dix said. “It's an extraordinary change and it came about in significant part because of Isobel’s advocacy,” he said. “It's not just advocating. It seeing that things get done.”

At Mackenzie’s urging, the government also increased respite care for home-support clients and improved adult day programs, Dix said, along with noting her significant role in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘The government should have listened to her more’

Longhurst said the seniors advocate position would be even more effective as an independent office of the legislature — putting it on the same level as the ombudsperson, auditor general and representative for children and youth — instead of embedded in the Ministry of Health where it is now.

While the advocate has some independence, he said, there is nothing to compel the government to formally respond publicly to recommendations.

Eby, however, said there are already other independent officers who as part of their work also take on the complaints and concerns of seniors. The advocate position works well the way it is currently structured and there are no plans to move it, he said.

“The benefit of being part of the Ministry of Health is [the advocate] is able to work closely with government to resolve the issues where government is interested to do that, which we are — but it’s not always the case,” Eby said.

The premier pointed out the “huge changes in government philosophy” during Mackenzie’s tenure after the BC NDP defeated the former BC Liberal government in 2017. He highlighted increased support for home care, bringing care workers back into the public sector, ending the practice of flipping contracts in health facilities and strengthening PharmaCare.

Falcon gave Mackenzie top marks and noted that it was the former BC Liberal government that created the position. “It just reinforces how good a move it was for us to set up that position and put her in place,” he said.

“I think frankly the government should have listened to her more about some of the concerns and issues that she’s raised,” he said. “I think she’s been exceptional and I applaud her for the work she has done.”

‘A fierce voice’

Mackenzie has constantly reminded the government of the challenges that seniors face, Falcon added, giving the example of the 2021 heat wave that killed a disproportionate number of older British Columbians.

Green Leader Furstenau, who recently announced she will run in Victoria-Beacon Hill in the next election instead of the Cowichan Valley seat she has held since 2017, said, “I think she’s been a fantastic advocate for seniors.”

Furstenau said Mackenzie demonstrated how the profit motive undermines the quality of services for seniors. “She’s been a fierce voice and I hope the next advocate for seniors has the same courage and fierceness she’s demonstrated.”

Mackenzie described the transition as “bittersweet” for her personally, though she has confidence in Levitt and the people who were with her on the committee that selected him.

“I know that the seniors of British Columbia are in good hands because not just of the commitment of Dan and of the minister,” she said, “but because of the commitment of all British Columbians to care for all of the frail people in our society and most particularly our seniors.”

Levitt said he looks forward to building on Mackenzie’s achievements.

The first thing he plans to do is tour the province to speak to older people, their caregivers and family members to better understand their biggest concerns, he said. “Then we'll be researching them, look for systemic issues, and we'll focus on them in a series of reports in the next several years.”

Longhurst said it’s great Levitt has a strong track record in the sector, combined with an academic affiliation with SFU. As someone who comes out of the non-profit sector, he understands the challenges and knows that the issue of ownership is huge, he said.

It’s important that the public and taxpayers get value for the money spent on services for seniors, he said, noting the significance of Mackenzie’s findings that for-profit facilities provide fewer hours of care to seniors than the province paid them for.

“In any other sector we’d call it fraud,” Longhurst said. “The public’s being taken for a ride here.”

The NDP made important commitments in opposition, he said, but so far there’s no indication the government is reducing its reliance on for-profit care providers. “I think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done on the seniors care file.”

A strong seniors advocate can press the government to move faster in the right direction.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, BC Politics

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