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LETTER: Assumption that institutions are best for elderly is false

We rely far too heavily on institutions and far too little on funding the support required to help elderly people age in place in their own homes, says educator/advocate
HRC file photo
The Huronia Regional Centre has been closed for years. It is located on Memorial Avenue across from the OPP General Headquarters.

Following recent stories and letters about the possible future use of the former Huronia Regional Centre property, MidlandToday received the following letter to the editor from Dr. Judith Sandys, who hopes to challenge the assumption that elderly people need to be in long term care institutions. Send your letter to [email protected]


Invariably the assumptions we hold about any group of people – about what they can or cannot do, what they want and what they need – have a defining impact on how we act in relation to members of that group.  

When it comes to elderly people, there is a widespread assumption within our society that many need to be in long term care institutions. It is time to challenge that assumption. 

There was a time, not that long ago, when many assumed that people who had intellectual disabilities belonged in large institutions like the Huronia Regional Centre. The assumption was that such people would not be safe in the community, that they needed the care and protection that institutions were presumed to provide, that they would be happier with others who also had intellectual disabilities, etc.

Those assumptions led to the development of large government-operated institutions across the province that resulted in the incarceration of thousands of people with intellectual disabilities, subjecting many to dehumanizing and brutal conditions as described by survivors.

Over time, these assumptions changed and we began to recognize that people with intellectual disabilities belonged in the community - indeed that they needed to be in the community, and that the community was better when everyone was included. These new assumptions led to significant changes. 

Today, in Ontario, Huronia and the other government-operated institutions for people with intellectual disabilities have all closed. And while the journey to full inclusion is far from complete, thousands of people with intellectual disabilities - many who are survivors of these old institutions – are living in the community and participating actively in community life.  

Paradoxically, at the same time as institutions for people with intellectual disabilities have closed, institutions for elderly people have increased exponentially. 

The ageist assumptions that continue to drive the development of these long term case institutions for old people are not unlike the old ableist assumptions that led to the development of institutions for people with intellectual disabilities.

Old people, particularly if they are frail or have some degree of dementia, are presumed to be sad, lonely and depressed, unaware of their surroundings, and unable to benefit from stimulating and challenging experience.  

It is assumed that they cannot live in the community, that they belong with people with similar characteristics, that the “care” they require can only be provided within an institution.

It is true that as people age, they may require additional supports and surely these should be available to them. However, given what we have learned about institutions, we must abandon the assumption that they are the only or best alternative.

Today Ontario relies far too heavily on institutions and far too little on funding the support required to help elderly people age in place in their own homes or at least within small personalized homes, within their own community.  

It has been some time since the closure of the government operated institutions for people with intellectual disabilities and many of the survivors  of this institutions are getting on in years.  

They and other older adults with intellectual disabilities are being admitted to long term care institutions because the support they require in the community is not available.

It is sad to realize that some of those survivors are at risk of spending their final days in yet another institution. How terrifying this must be!  

While none of us knows how long we will live, studies indicate that healthy eating, frequent exercise, meaningful activity, mental stimulation, and close personal relationships are associated with increased longevity.

And if they do not contribute to a longer life, they certainly contribute to a better one. We must challenge the negative assumptions about elderly people that are resulting in widespread institutionalization.

We must provide to elderly people he support they need so that they can lead good lives, at home, in the community, filled with meaningful activities and important relationships. No matter one's age, the essential elements of a good life never change. 

Dr. Judith Sandys, now retired, is a former Dean of Community Services at Ryerson University, a former Executive Director of Associations for Community Living, and a longstanding educator and advocate. She is a member of SSAO.