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Seniors Advocate sad to see position cut

The former Alberta Seniors Advocate is uncertain about how well seniors will be served now that her office has been absorbed into the Office of Alberta Health Advocates.
seniors advocate
From left) Alberta Council on Aging Executive Director Donna Durand, Sue Lafferty, ACA President Ron Rose, Dr. Sheree Kwong See, Rita Loken. Terry Jorden photo

The former Alberta Seniors Advocate is uncertain about how well seniors will be served now that her office has been absorbed into the Office of Alberta Health Advocates.

“The best I know is that the transition is being sorted out by the Ministry of Seniors and Housing and the Ministry of Health. I don’t know any more details than that,” sayid Dr. Sheree Kwong See whose three-year contract ended Dec. 31.

Dr. Kwong See was invited to speak to the Alberta Council on aging on December 4. She spoke to Prime Times after her speech.

Of the six people who worked in the office, two administrative positions are likely being moved elsewhere in government. Dr. Kwong See is returning to her position at the University of Alberta, while the remaining three are expected to move to the Office of Alberta Health Advocates.

“They (the three) will continue to do advocacy work but the scope of their work is unknown,” said Kwong See.

She admits to being a little frustrated with the decision to close the office. After three years of operations, she felt they were just beginning to make progress.

Ron Rose, president of the Alberta Council on Aging, said the ACA is disappointed the office is being closed.

We don’t know what it will transition to,” said Rose. “We are waiting to hear what may happen to the good work of Dr. Sheree Kwong See.

“The office was something new for the province and we were pleased to see what Dr. Kwong See was able to accomplish."

Natalie Tomczak, the press secretary for Seniors and Housing Minister Josephine Pon, said no jobs or services will be lost or eliminated.

“Combining the Office of the Seniors Advocate with the Alberta Health Advocate offices will address the varied concerns raised by seniors and ensure increased efficiency, expertise, and the resources to respond,“ Tomczak said.  She said trained staff will be available to provide information, referrals and other services, beginning in January.

In 2013, as part of the implementation of the Alberta Health Act, the former Progressive Conservative government announced it was creating offices of the health advocate and seniors advocate. The offices opened in 2014, with the health advocate taking on the seniors advocate role temporarily until Kwong See was appointed by the NDP government in 2016.

As an academic who has studied ageism and age stereotyping, she has mixed feelings about the idea of a special office to advocate for seniors because it assumes that all seniors are part of a homogenous group who are low income, vulnerable and needing special assistance.  On one hand, she knows that assistance is sometimes needed, but on the other hand, in an ideal world, the office should not be necessary.

The office’s mandate was threefold: to provide help to seniors and their families by providing information and referrals; analyzing trends and systemic issues; and to provide policy advice to improve provincial government programs and services for seniors.

How effective the office was is harder to judge but according to its own annual report the 2018-19 year was difficult. In her letter to the minister, Dr. Kwong See said the work of the office slowed, partly due to her six-month medical leave.

“It has been a challenge since beginning my term in September 2016 to establish, refine and sustain the operations of the Alberta Office of the Seniors Advocate. The Office staff complement is small and the mandate large,” she wrote.

Unfilled staff positions, a fire that forced the office to relocate to temporary spaces three times, and difficulty in spending its $981,000 annual budget were also reported.

The annual report also reported that some seniors seeking assistance were critical of the office’s limitations.

“The Office has no power or authority but it was helpful with explaining why things are the way they are,” said one senior.

“The Senior Advocate Representative (staff person) was great and did what she could, however the office is very limited to what they can do. The office needs more power,” said another.

Would Dr. Kwong See have stayed on as the seniors advocate if given the opportunity? She says she is certain she would not have wanted to stay in the role forever, but she is frustrated there were some projects and issues left unaddressed.

Some of those issues include immigrant sponsorship breakdowns (when a relationship with a family member responsible for sponsoring and supporting senior breaks down), improvements to the Persons in Care program and systemic ageism in government policy.