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A chat with Alberta's new seniors minister

When Jeff Johnson was named minister in charge of the new Alberta Seniors department a few days after Premier Jim Prentice came to power in September, he was told to meet with seniors and to tackle issues such as elder abuse and safety at seniors' ho
New seniors minister
New seniors minister

When Jeff Johnson was named minister in charge of the new Alberta Seniors department a few days after Premier Jim Prentice came to power in September, he was told to meet with seniors and to tackle issues such as elder abuse and safety at seniors' homes.

Johnson, the MLA for Athabasca-Sturgeon-Redwater since 2008, was most recently education minister where he faced widespread controversy over the government's curriculum policy and the recommendations of a committee that looked into educational issues.

In his new role, he faces the challenge of creating a new department that Prentice views as important enough to merit its own minister in his slimmed down cabinet.

Edmonton Senior talked with Johnson about challenges he now faces:

Can you talk about how your background prepares you for the seniors' cabinet post?

I think that the fact I've had a real breadth of experience within government already is valuable. Having been in cabinet and seeing the work that has to be done between departments, this is a file where it is critical to have good working relationships with the other ministries and also to know how budgeting and the Treasury Board works. I've been on the Treasury Board for the last five years. I also have experience with the oilsands secretariat and infrastructure. In the oilsands secretariat, people think you are on the energy side, but our role at the secretariat was not really energy related, it had to do with community planning and infrastructure planning and the growth pressures that the economy was bringing to the northeast and how we could plan for that. So that kind of forward planning and projection is a really important part of this ministry.

Why has the government given a new priority to older Albertans at this time?

We have a new premier and I think he has been very responsive to what Albertans are telling him. It is a critical piece of concern for many communities and many Albertans and he is taking action.

There are many issues surrounding the growing numbers of aging people. Which do you see as most crucial?

Probably one of the most crucial is making sure we have an inventory of space so people can age in their own communities with their families and friends in communities they built and where they have lived for decades. I think one of the most troubling things we hear about is people having to leave their communities because there isn't space for them, or what some people call divorce by nursing home. We want to attack those things and make sure the people who built the province are treated with the dignity they deserve.

Seniors are concerned with health care and especially, it seems, wait times and access to primary care. How will your department push for changes in these areas?

I think there are a number of things here. One of underlying things that come with access to health care for seniors in outlying and rural areas is transportation. I don't have an answer on that, but that is an issue that many seniors and seniors groups have identified. I think that is something where we need to put our heads together with municipalities to see what we can do.

Many Albertans also see a need for improved access to home care to help keep people in their homes longer. Do you see this as a priority?

Home care is obviously an area where the province has been spending a lot of effort and money. It will be a continued place where we have to target resources. ... I can't speak for the minister of health, but I can say it is an area where we have to keep increasing investment and focus on because it is very impactful.

What do you see as the main issue regarding seniors' residences – safety, availability, crowding?

I think it is availability so people can age in the communities they built with their friends, families and support networks. That is one of the big challenges and the other one, right in my mandate letter, is safety standards we have in facilities across the province. We have to make sure they are up to modern fire codes, with sprinkler systems and all of those types of things. I have very specific directions from the premier.

The right to what some people call death with dignity has been gaining prominence in the public conversation. Where do you and the government stand on this issue?

This, honestly, is not something that has come to my desk. If seniors and families start raising it as an issue, it might be something we have to have a dialogue on but it hasn't been presented to me yet. I know one other province has wrestled with it and now I believe it is going to the Supreme Court. I think it is kind of premature of us to talk about it until we see what happens in the courts.

What strategy is this government likely to adopt to deal with elder abuse?

I have the mandate to see that there is a strong elder abuse strategy and that we have a strong awareness on that. There was some work done on this a couple of years ago and I think we have to take the good work that was done and retool it and improve it and make sure we are raising awareness on this.

Many seniors face the retirement years with financial struggles. Does this government have any plans to help them beyond what is already available?

I think we'll have to wait and see on that. We want to focus our resources on the areas where they will have the most impact. One of the biggest things is to help facilitate seniors aging in their home first, and then their community – things like the property tax deferral and maybe looking at things such as transportation. We need to look at every tool we put in the toolbox because every community and every family is different, so people get the resources where they live. It is challenging to develop a one-size-fits-all solution because of the diversity across the province.

Is there anything we have not asked that you might like to add?

I think the fact that we are talking and that we have a stand-alone seniors' ministry right now is probably one of the strongest statements the premier has made.