Erik Eriksson announces bid for mayor of Courtenay

Erik Eriksson announces bid for mayor of Courtenay

The 2018 municipal election campaign got a jump start this week when Courtenay Councillor Erik Eriksson told Decafnation that he’s running for mayor.

Eriksson is the first Comox Valley candidate to formally announce his campaign.

While most incumbents and potential newcomers are still mulling the pros and cons of committing to a four-year term that won’t end until 2023, Eriksson said he couldn’t wait to start building support.

Eriksson said it wasn’t his intention to contest incumbent Mayor Larry Jangula for the mayor’s chair, but he also couldn’t wait for Jangula to finally decide if he’s retiring or seeking another term. Jangula has hinted at stepping down next year.

“I just had to get my campaign started,” Eriksson said. “It takes time to put together a successful support team for the mayor’s office.”

Voters go to the polls on Oct. 20 next year. The official nomination period for candidates begins on Sept. 3, 2018 and runs for 10 days.

Eriksson, who begins his sixth year on Courtenay City Council in 2018, is running on a simple platform: building partnerships.

He believes people who live in the region’s three municipalities and three unincorporated regional districts have common goals, and that by working together they can be more effective.

Eriksson isn’t using the “A-word” (amalgamation) because that’s a long and complicated process, which Valley voters have rejected in the past. But he believes there’s ample space for municipalities, the regional district, K’omoks First Nation and CFB Comox to share more services.

It’s one of his best skills, he believes, to resolve problems by helping people to find a common purpose.

“It’s amazing how effective you can be if you just talk … and discover that common ground,” he said.

Eriksson points to his support for the Committee to End Homelessness, the Community Health Network, the Food Bank and the Courtenay Youth Music Centre  as examples.

If elected, Eriksson would apply those skills to bring the council together.

And he’s motivated by a single purpose, “to make things better for people who don’t have it so good,” he said.

Some candidates like to work on building campaigns privately, and announce at the last minute. But Eriksson didn’t hesitate to publicly announce his candidacy early.

“It’s going to take time to show voters all the ways we can work better through partnerships. I want to use the credibility I’ve built to champion this cause,” he said.


Abbeyfield closure highlights seniors housing issues

Abbeyfield closure highlights seniors housing issues

They come here to retire. They come from across Canada, the United States and other countries. They come for the Comox Valley’s moderate climate and spectacular landscape.

They come, they stay and they age. And so the Comox Valley’s population has aged at a rate nearly double the provincial average.

Within the next 20 years, the Valley’s population of people 75 years old and older is predicted to double. People over the age of 65 already comprise almost a third of the Valley’s total population, and it will continue to be the region’s fastest growing age group.

They come because the Comox Valley is well-known as one Vancouver Island’s best places to retire.

But it’s less well-known that as a result of this increasing elder population, the Comox Valley has become a not-so-great place to grow old.

Especially for those of modest wealth.

If you can afford them, and find a vacancy, the Comox Valley appears to be awash in private seniors independent- and assisted-living facilities. Most are full and have long waiting lists, and new units sometimes sell out before construction begins.

But for seniors surviving at the lower end of the income scale, and those who need government assistance, there are fewer choices.

That’s why the recent closure of Abbeyfield House in Courtenay, which displaced 10 senior citizens from their independent living home, has created such a community uproar.

Abbeyfield House

The backstory of Abbeyfield’s closure reveals the root problem: There is a dearth of residential care beds and affordable seniors housing in the Comox Valley.

The province’s 12 Abbeyfield Houses are designed for lower income seniors and those who prefer a smaller facility. The houses, including six on Vancouver Island, provide affordable housing for people over the age of 55 who are capable of living independently, but want a “supportive domestic atmosphere (that) provides companionship and freedom from worries and chores.”

As Abbeyfield residents age and their health declines, and they can no longer live independently, it is expected they will move to more appropriate residential care facilities. Then Abbeyfield Houses can make room for independent seniors on their waiting lists. The Courtenay Abbeyfield House had more than 30 eligible seniors on its wait list.

Except there haven’t been any available beds in residential care or similar affordable housing facilities in the Comox Valley. And none of the Abbeyfield tenants wanted to move. They were content with the excellent “at home” care provided by Island Health’s home care program, which it would have continued to do if Abbeyfield had remained open.

When Abbeyfield closed last week, its youngest resident was 91. She should have been moved into residential care years ago, but Island Health had no where to put her. Instead, seven different Island Health professionals have been making an average of 115 visits per week to care for her and other (not all) of the Abbeyfield residents.

Many 91-year-olds do live in the community, however, some with support and some who can still manage independently. Age is not always an indicator of need for residential care.

Island Health told Decafnation that it supported Abbeyfield tenants to continue living in the community — as they do with any person who chooses to remain as independent as possible and who needs support.

But because the Comox Valley lacks sufficient residential care beds to meet growing demand, Abbeyfield had become a hybrid type of care facility to which it didn’t aspire or could afford.

The story of one Abbeyfield resident illustrates how ridiculous the situation had become.

An elderly woman resident suddenly required acute hospital care. The hospital treated her and then sent her back to Abbeyfield on a stretcher. She was bed-ridden. Abbeyfield sent her back to the hospital, which refused her and she landed back in Abbeyfield with Island Health workers providing the care she should have been getting in a long-term residential facility.

One Abbeyfield resident suffering from dementia has occasionally wandered off the premises, requiring the House Coordinator to find and rescue her. But the House Coordinator’s job is only to prepare meals and to do other household chores. There is no overnight supervision at Abbeyfield Houses.

When Abbeyfield closed its doors, Island Health was forced to find placements within the Valley for the tenants, which created a momentary housing crisis. Other people, who desperately needed beds and had waited patiently on the waitlist, were bumped — or triaged — to accommodate the soon to be homeless Abbeyfield tenants.

Placement in publicly-funded residential care is based on several factors, according to Island Health, including urgency and need, and the type of bed and geographical area selected. It is not a first-come, first-serve system.

Most of the former Abbeyfield tenants are now receiving care at Casa Loma; two went to live with family and one resides in another local residential facility.

But another group of citizens, called Save Abbeyfield, believes the Abbeyfield model is still viable in the Comox Valley. And they have offered to step-in and re-open the residence.

They hope to do that before the current board sells the property or gifts it to another non-profit organization.

Jennifer Pass, one of the Save Abbeyfield contacts, said they would address the residential bed crisis in a different way.

“It is necessary to have good relationships with sponsors, and have two sponsors for every tenant,” she said. “Sponsors must be well aware, when their relative or friend moves in, that it is for “independent” seniors. If the resident gets to the point of putting other tenants at risk, and if one has not the support of Island Health in moving the person along, then it may be necessary to evict the person.

“Often a person is hospitalized and then it may be crucial to not allow the person to return to the facility (Berwick, Casa Loma, etc.) all have to deal with this situation.

“I found with my mum that a clear letter as to whose responsibility it would be if she returned to Casa Loma (an assisted living facility) and had a fall or suffered physical harm in assisted living can be very helpful if presented to hospital staff.

“Having sponsors on side is very helpful, and achieved by good lines of communication from the outset.”

Pass and Abbeyfield board chair Joan Carson could probably agree on one point:

The lack of affordable housing for seniors and a lack of residential care beds are distinct problems that became linked because Island Health looked at Abbeyfield as a safe place to park people — its tenants were getting meals and some supervision.

Regardless of whether Abbeyfield reopens, a crisis-driven method of initiating change for our elders is unacceptable. Surely the provincial Ministry of Health can do better than this.

In response to a request for comment, MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard returned the following statement:

“It must have been very stressful for the tenants and families to learn that Abbeyfield was closing. I am glad that all 10 of Abbeyfield’s tenants have been placed in new homes – this is great news.

“One of our new government’s top priorities is improving the services people count on, and we’re working hard, but 16 years of B.C. Liberal neglect can’t be fixed overnight.”

It’s a politicized comment. And disappointing that the newly-elected MLA couldn’t say she was doing something specific to assuage a growing community concern.

And the problem gets worse

Seniors who require residential care beds aren’t just plugging facilities designed for independent seniors, they are also taking up acute care beds — and acute care funding.

Chris Kelsey, chair of the St. Joseph’s General Hospital board, estimates that more than 30 percent of the community’s acute care beds are occupied by people who need an alternate level of care (ALC). In other words, there are perhaps 40-50 frail and elderly people, who do not need acute care, taking up beds at the new Comox Valley Hospital because there is nowhere more appropriate to move them.

This problem isn’t unique to the Comox Valley, but it’s more severe here.

According to a 2015 report by the B.C. Care Providers Association, “roughly 13 percent of every bed-night (province-wide) is being used by somebody who should be at another level of care.”save Abbeyfield

Acute care beds cost taxpayers between $800 to $2,000 per day, while residential care beds typically cost about $200. The BCCPA has proposed redirecting some acute care funding to the development of new long-term residential care facilities.

Kelsey said St. Joseph’s recognized this problem many years ago when it created a transition unit to park people who were previously treated as medical patients, but no longer needed that level of care. It was a controversial move at the time, but is now common among the province’s hospitals.

Is long-term care help on the way?

The scope of the Valley’s problem starts to come into focus when you consider that just 4 percent of the senior population will want or require residential care and there are already 421 residential care beds in four publicly-funded Comox Valley facilities. All of them are full and they all have waiting lists.

Island Health planned to build 70 new residential care beds in the Comox Valley, and issued a Request For Proposal last year. That many new beds would have eased the pressure on many other organizations, including Abbeyfield.

But over the summer, Island Health withdrew the proposal shortly after the change in provincial government and its decision to move the four hospice beds at St. Joseph’s General Hospital to a secular facility, along with two new hospice beds.

The 70 new residential care beds are urgently needed, and their imminent construction gave hope to elderly caregivers and also to housing providers, such as Abbeyfield House.

But the withdrawal of the RFP was crushing. Local care givers now fear a multi-year delay in bringing the new beds into service. But Island Health is more optimistic. The agency told Decafnation that the new beds should be ready for occupancy in late in 2019.

Island Health Director of Residential Services, Tim Orr, says the RFP was withdrawn due to changing requirements and community input. That included whether people would have access to Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) and where to locate the four existing and two new hospice beds.

But increasing the number of residential beds in the RFP was also part of the discussion. Orr said Island Health recognizes the Comox Valley’s need for more residential beds, but also for more affordable housing for independent seniors. Other communities have more of the latter.

Orr said faith-based providers, such as St. Joseph’s, are not excluded from responding to the RFP because the typical level of cognitive deficit of residential care patients excludes them from qualifying for MAiD.

One bright spot in this quagmire is the proposal to redevelop and refocus The Views, a 117-bed residential care facility operated by St. Joseph’s. They are planning a dementia village facility, perhaps with more beds, surrounded by a campus of seniors care services that might include a pharmacy and seniors daycare.

They plan to proceed regardless if they are successful in a bid for the additional residential beds contract.

About 90 percent of The Views’ residents have dementia. And while the average age of residential care patients has declined, the percentage suffering with dementia is likely to increase.

To build its vision, St. Joseph’s intends to merge with Providence Health Care in a new society not governed by the B.C. Hospital Act. Because the province does not provide funds for capital construction, the new society could borrow against its assets and future revenue.

Kelsey is confident that Island Health supports this vision, especially since Providence already plays a leading role in B.C. dementia care.

Where do we go from here?

The residential bed crisis in the Comox Valley is a complex problem. It involves medical, ethical and financial issues that won’t be solved by multiple groups asking the provincial government for a variety and sometimes conflicting resolutions.

For political and practical purposes, Victoria wants to hear The Valley speak with only one voice.

But what voice? The absence of a Comox Valley-wide co-ordinating authority has in the past led to short-term thinking and patchwork solutions on a number of different fronts — sewerage, water treatment, transportation and so on.

In order to develop a regional strategy on elderly care and seniors housing for all income levels, all the disparate Comox Valley groups must work together. That doesn’t mean everyone has to abandon their philosophical principles.

It means finding common ground, those points on which there is collective agreement, such as the urgent need to provide more residential care beds. The Comox Valley needs to speak to Victoria in a singular voice on that issue.






Comox Council ignores good faith offer to fix Shakesides roof

Comox Council ignores good faith offer to fix Shakesides roof

The purposeful neglect of the Mack Laing heritage house by the Town of Comox has reached a new low.

Hamilton Mack Laing gave his house, known as Shakesides, along with a substantial sum of money in his Last Will and Testament for the purpose of converting it into a public natural history museum. Laing, an internationally respected naturalist and ornithologist, died in 1982.

But the town has done nothing over the intervening 35 years to comply with Laing’s last wishes, and has intentionally let the building fall into disrepair. Council members apparently hope their neglect will garner support for the effort to tear it down.

But the Mack Laing Heritage Society (MLHS) hopes to preserve Shakesides in its current condition, at least until the B.C. Supreme Court rules on the town’s application to demolish the building. That seems reasonable.

And it was in that spirit that MLHS offered to place a tarp on the roof of Shakesides to prevent moisture from entering the building through a decades-old roof and to stop further deterioration of the famous naturalist’s home on Comox Bay.With another wet winter in the forecast, council members should have accepted the offer. Especially because MLHS members proposed to pay the entire labor cost of a professional installation.

And they made this offer with plenty of time to get such a simple task done over last spring and summer.

Vandals recently attacked Shakesides for the second time, but no other structure in Mack Laing Park. That suggests the vandalism is politically motivated. See the full gallery of photographs below.

MLHS President J-Kris Nielsen first presented the group’s offer verbally at a Committee of the Whole meeting on March 22, 2017, complete with projected costs. He followed that up with an April 17 letter to the town detailing a work plan that included drawings and itemized material costs totalling $1,892.80.

The letter was officially stamped “Received” on April 20, 2017.

Seven months later, the town has yet to respond. Not a letter. Not an email. Not a phone call.

The Town of Comox voted unanimously in February to ask the B.C. Supreme Court to release the town from the terms of the trust established by Laing’s Last Will. That would allow them to demolish the house. No court date has been set.

So the council might have figured, why spend even $1,800 to preserve a building we hope to tear down? Fair enough, but doesn’t decency require a reply to well-intentioned citizens, at the least?

And consider this:

The town has hired the law firm Young & Anderson to make their case for demolition to the province’s high court. If they succeed, the town has committed to spend around $300,000 of taxpayer’s money to pay lawyers, demolish the building and build a viewing platform.

Yet council members can’t find $1,800 for a group of passionate citizens to tarp the roof? The MLHS might have even paid the whole bill if council had made a civil response.

It’s shameful. But no surprise.

For 35 years, the Town of Comox has neglected the last wishes of this important literary and ornithological person, and mismanaged his trusts. It’s shameful how the town has claimed Laing’s celebrity, when convenient, but has always ignored his desire for a legacy.

Those who prefer to save Shakesides have criticized council and pressured them to act. But that’s no justification for a town government to disrespect its citizens. Or act vindictively. They deserved a reply.

And, really, it seems only fair to put a tarp on a leaking roof until the Supreme Court hears the case, because there’s no guarantee how the court will rule, or view the town’s behavior in this matter.

Meanwhile, Shakesides recently suffered another attack by pretend graffiti artists.

Like the graffiti attack in April, vandals again spray-painted the historical home with lame images. It wasn’t serious tagging, much less artwork.

These latest vandals might be the same person or group of people. They just made a better effort. We’ll never know for sure.

But it is interesting that, like the last attack, no other sign, bridge, post or tree was spray-painted. That makes it likely that this defacing of public property is somehow connected to the political and legal battle over the preservation of Laing’s home.

And, of course, the defacing fits nicely with the Town Council’s policy of intentional neglect.




After hospital transfer, Valley must confront moral issues

After hospital transfer, Valley must confront moral issues

The Comox Valley’s sparkling new North Island Hospital opens this weekend, resplendent with the latest medical technology and designed to inspire happiness and hope. It’s a joyous occasion.

But with every yang, there’s also a yin.

The bright new government-run secular hospital replaces all of the acute-care beds of the community’s original, 104-year-old St. Joseph’s Hospital. And, in doing so, it may jeopardize any future health care role for St. Joe’s in this community.

A parade of ambulances, taxis and other vehicles will transport current acute-care patients to the new hospital on Sunday, Oct. 1. When they’ve finished, only 125 residential, long-term care beds and four hospice beds will remain on St. Joe’s property at the top of Comox Hill.

And all of them are tenuous.

That should be alarming to Comox Valley residents because St. Joe’s has a grand vision to reinvent itself as a much-needed campus of care specifically for the exploding senior population. Within the next 20 years, the number of Valley residents over the age of 74 is predicted to double, and one in three will suffer from dementia and need long-term care.

St. Joseph’s General Hospital has served the Comox Valley for more than 104 years

St. Joe’s vision includes a dementia village, modeled after Hogewey in the Netherlands and others throughout Canada and Washington state. These self-contained housing communities allow patients to move around freely and safely.

And they would transform the whole 17-acre site into an “aging in place” hub of compassionate care services that would benefit the Valley in many different ways.

So what’s the problem?

After the federal government passed legislation last summer that legalizes and governs Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD), some local citizens are challenging the appropriateness of locating publicly-funded hospice beds at St. Joe’s.

Physician-assisted death is a “hard no” philosophically for most Catholic health care providers, and the Diocese of Victoria, which assumed management of St. Joe’s in 1989, when the founding Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto withdrew, appears to be no exception.

That meant that hospice patients at St. Joe’s, who might choose and qualify for physician-assisted death under Canada’s new law, would have to be transferred to another location for the ingestion or injection of life-ending medications.

A group of Valley citizens, called the Equal Access Committee, convinced Island Health to move the four hospice beds, and two more planned for this year, to another, secular location. So far, that hasn’t happened because there is no existing alternative facility.

In fact, it could be years before the government builds a new secular facility for hospice care.

If this were only about the small number of Comox Valley hospice beds, St. Joe’s vision for a cutting edge campus of seniors health care would not be threatened.

But the Equal Access Committee wants more. They have asked Island Health to also take away St. Joe’s 125 resident care beds. Residential care, they argue, is just part of a continuum that ultimately leads to end-of-life decisions, which should include physician-assisted death.

If the Equal Access Committee succeeds, St. Joe’s will have no longer have any health care role available to pursue. Who knows what the Diocese of Victoria would do then.

But it doesn’t have to happen here, and shouldn’t happen solely because of Canada’s MAiD law.

It’s true that social values have tipped toward acceptance of a person’s right to choose a speedier death, to end their suffering. And it’s also true that Catholic health care is rooted in their faith, which commits them to certain values and behaviors.

However, some Catholic hospitals in the U.S. have employed moral ethicists to reflect the reality that they must navigate both canonical and civil laws and guidelines.

But physician-assisted death has obscured the hospice mission, and confused many hospice workers and potential hospice patients. “Do we help you die well, or do we just help you die?” they ask.

The fact is, very few hospice patients choose physician-assisted death. According to a Vancouver Island case review published last month in the B.C. Medical Journal, only 2 percent of total deaths recorded during the six-month study period were medically assisted.

Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of those 72 assisted deaths took place at home, and another quarter (21%) occurred in acute care hospitals. Only 12 percent or 8 assisted deaths took place in hospices, and only 3 percent or 2 assisted deaths took place in residential care facilities. These are Island-wide statistics.

Those numbers may grow in time, but it’s clear that the percentage of eligible people choosing physician-assisted death will remain small. For one thing, it’s difficult to qualify under the new law; natural death must be imminent.

So does it make sense to say all the good tenets of compassionate care for the elderly (including care for the body, mind and spirit regardless of the ability to pay) should be thrown out the window because of a physician-assisted death provision that only a few will qualify for and use?

Isn’t removing residential care beds from St. Joe’s akin to throwing out the old folks with the bathwater?

Shouldn’t palliative care be an effective alternative to assisted dying, one that makes MAiDs unnecessary except in the most extreme circumstances?

An issue that affects so few people should not overshadow and deny St. Joe’s the opportunity to create an innovative respite for the one-in-three of us who will eventually suffer from dementia.

Island Health has made its decision on locating hospice beds. The community should now support St. Joe’s retention of The Views, its residential care beds and the addition of 70 more, which is essential for them to fulfill their vision for a community campus of care for Comox Valley seniors.

And, for those who will want access to MAiD services, we should work together to create space for that alternative — but without jeopardizing the vital new services for the elderly that St. Joe’s has the potential to provide.


Norma Morton remembers how Hollyhock Flats got its name

Norma Morton remembers how Hollyhock Flats got its name

When Project Watershed and the K’omoks First Nation partnership finish restoring the former Field’s Sawmill site, an important piece of the K’omoks estuary will return to its natural state, a saltwater marsh.

The partners have decided to name the newly preserved property Kus-kus-sum in honor of the ancient K’omoks village that once thrived directly across the Courtenay River. It’s hoped that the K’omoks first Nation and the City of Courtenay will accept ownership.

The preservation of these 8.3 riverside acres represents a triumph by 21st Century environmentalists to protect the K’omoks Estuary.

But Kus-kus-sum isn’t the first K’omoks estuary marsh that needed saving.

And if it wasn’t for the efforts of the newly formed Comox Strathcona Natural History Society in the late 1960s and early 1970s to preserve another, larger marsh further down river, the Field’s Sawmill site might have been lost forever to commercial development.

Norma Morton, born in 1931 to a third generation Comox Valley family, remembers her father driving their Model T vehicle along the gravel road, known as Comox Road, or the Dyke Road, and counting the Trillium flowers flourishing along the riverside.

Ms. Morton remembers that before the Field family built a sawmill on the site, there was another enterprise located there called Riverside Laundry, a business that did all the cleaning for St. Joseph’s Hospital. And that after the laundry closed, she recalls that a cannery was built.

Project Watershed archive photo of Field’s Sawmill and Hollyhock Flats

When Ms. Morton moved back to Courtenay in 1966 after working for several years in Vancouver and Victoria, she was devastated by the uncontrolled development of a Valley that she remembered as pristine.

So she and her husband, Keith, and a dozen local enthusiastic birders and botanists formed the Comox Strathcona Natural History Society. It was the beginning of the environment movement in the Comox Valley.

Their first project was to protect and preserve a saltwater marsh just south of Field’s Sawmill, which had not yet been named and was being used as a dumping ground. The sawmill was filling in the marsh with chips, oil cans and trash.

Ms. Morton remembers it being even worse:  Workers threw wire and other debris directly into the river.

The society had begun an 8-year battle.

About that same time, a University of British Columbia masters student by the name of Kennedy spent a summer cataloging all the plants thriving in the estuary, and in the marsh in particular. One of those plants was “sidalcea hendersonii,” or commonly known as Henderson’s Checker Mallow, or the Marsh Hollyhock.

To promote the natural history society’s efforts to save the marsh, local botanist Sid Belsom wrote an essay extolling its beauty and virtues and he headlined it “Hollyhock Flats in the Courtenay Estuary.” The Comox District Free Press (The Green Sheet) published the article in 1966.

That unofficial name has stuck.

The fight to save the marsh gained momentum in 1969. The society wrote a letter to Crown Zellerbach asking that the property owners preserve the marsh area as a nature conservancy.

By the early 1970s a Comox Valley chapter of the Society Promoting Environmental Conservancy (SPEC) had been formed by members of the natural history society and others.

Norma Morton, early Comox Valley environmentalist

Ms. Morton wrote a 17-page brief for SPEC that contained 10 recommendations to save the K’omoks Estuary. It had the support of provincial biologists.

The brief was sent to local mayors and other elected officials. But only Comox Mayor Dick Merrick had the courage to put its recommendations before the town council.

Merrick moved to preserve all the land between Dyke road and the estuary, from Field’s Sawmill to K’omoks First Nation as a greenway. The motion failed because no council member would second it.

But the council did support preservation of a section of land where an old shake mill had been located, which today is a Rotary-sponsored viewing stand.

Despite that setback, Ms. Morton and friends kept up the fight.

Their efforts were finally rewarded in July 1974 when NDP MLA Karen Sanford secured funding to purchase the 24.3 acres of saltwater marsh from Crown Zellerbach, southeast and adjacent to Field’s Sawmill. The purchase also included 1.8 acres southwest of Dyke Road between the tidal slough floodgate and the old LaFarge cement silo.

And Hollyhock Flats was preserved.

The Comox Strathcona Natural History Society eventually became Comox Valley Nature, and is still active in birding, botany and land conservancy.


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