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Seniors who smoke: Can you light up while living in a care home?

Should smokers have to quit to live in care facilities, or is there a will to accommodate them?

Seniors who can’t kick the nicotine habit are facing life-changing moves in an ever-expanding smoke-free world.

Statistics Canada numbers show about 55,200 Albertans over 65 smoked in 2020, up a bit from 54,000 in 2019. The total number of smokers of all ages dropped during the same period.

The number of seniors’ facilities in Alberta with indoor smoking rooms has dropped to 17 while 155 other centres have designated outdoor smoking areas, according to Alberta Health Services. The remaining 275-plus facilities do not even allow smokers to move in.

“It’s ridiculous. Smokers should be getting help,” said Ruth Adria, executive director of the Elder Advocates of Alberta. Adria says more consideration should be given to elderly smokers in care facilities. “They don't move to those facilities because they have a choice. It's because they have to. They’ve been smoking for decades. They’re addicted."

An official with the Beaver Foundation, which operates two lodges with smoking rooms in Beaver County in southern Alberta agrees, saying it’s safer to allow seniors to continue to light up indoors.

“If you force a senior to stop smoking, they’ll try to sneak cigarettes and it creates a really bad environment,” said Beaver Foundation CAO Owen Ligard, adding, “These people have been smoking 60-70 years. You can’t expect them to just quit.”

The operator of a long-term care facility in Calgary says there are benefits to a smoking room even though it presents challenges for staff.

“We have some compliant smokers and some who like to bend the rules,” said Scott Wagner, general manager of the Mayfair Care Centre, adding, “Not everyone wants to work on that unit.”

Wagner says all smoking residents at Mayfair live on one unit. “We have room for 37 on the smoking unit and right now it’s almost full,” he said.

An official with an assisted living facility in Lac Ste. Anne, west of Edmonton, says the main advantage of their smoking room is it stops risky behavior by residents.

“The upside is we don’t have to evict anyone for smoking,” said Tammie Jacobs, site manager of the 50-resident Chateau Lac Ste. Anne. Jacobs says drawbacks include second-hand smoke escaping the room and the difficult cleaning routine for staff.

The outdoor smoking area at Edmonton's Villa Marguerite is likewise creating increased challenges for staff.

"The number of smokers in the independent living area is going up--we're at about 25-30 per cent,” said Cheryl Bilous, executive health care leader. “We're getting more smokers here because a lot of the new homes are not taking smokers.”

"A smoker puts the entire building at risk. If they can't follow the rules they are moved," said Bilous. "It is hard to get them relocated, but we are managing."

A 68-year-old man who lives in a low-income seniors’ facility in Calgary is facing eviction after he was caught smoking in his suite earlier this summer.

“I was smoking by the window and someone smelled it and reported me. I have to be out by the end of August,” said the man, who did not want to be named.

Bilous, who was once a two-pack per day smoker, understands the difficulty smokers face.

"For these residents it's the one thing that brings them real pleasure in life. They do not have a lot else to do."

The president and CEO of St. Michael’s Health Group, which operates four facilities in central Alberta, says it was a difficult decision to remove the smoking room at all properties in 2019.

"Our smoking room met building code but even with proper ventilation, second hand smoke did get into the common areas,” said John Kopeck.

Bilous suggests building 'smokers only' safe houses as a possible solution.

"There are safe injection sites and sites for alcoholics. It could be a purpose-built home for smokers that takes into consideration safety issues," she said.

Programs to help seniors quit smoking can be found at: albertaquits.healthiertogether.ca/stages-of-change/