Paul Charles holds one of the meals he receive as part of his assisted living accommodations.

Hard to swallow

Fort St. James seniors find Northern Health’s food unpalatable

Quality of food is impacting quality of life for local seniors, according to concerns brought forward recently.

Two seniors who live in the Pioneer Lodge receive their meals from Northern Health as part of the assisted living accommodations they pay for each month, however, they would prefer to cook for themselves.

Paul Charles and Joan Ubleis have been raising concerns about the quality of the food they are supplied by Northern Health for a long time, but so far, not much has changed.

As part of their private suites in Pioneer Lodge, which include kitchen facilities with a fridge and stove, the two are delivered meals each day at noon. Each of them are normally supplied with one hot meal, one bowl of soup, a sandwich and two desserts. Ublei no longer receives the meals, but she still must pay for them.

She said she can not make ends meet with her prescription costs each month on top of eating food she has to purchase.

Ubleis said she pays $800 per month to stay in her suite and receive the meals.

Charles has been writing to Northern Health and the hospital for over two years asking for changes to be made or to be able to prepare his own meals and not pay for the Northern Health meals.

So both Ubleis and Charles are hoping bringing their concerns forward to local government will help.

Councillor Russ Gingrich has taken up their cause and will be asking for the blessing of mayor and council to discuss the problem at the Union of British Columbia Municipalities later this month.

Gingrich said he would like to see seniors receive more consideration regarding their quality of life, which includes meals, and he believes the problem is likely province-wide.

After he was contacted with the seniors’ concerns, he visited Charles in his residence to see what the food really was like, and said what he saw he would not personally consider a meal.

“In a word, terrible describes everything,” said Gingrich. “Suffice to say we will have to keep hammering at it.”

While personal taste can always be a factor in food concerns, Ubleis is frustrated her request to discontinue paying for food she does not eat so she can afford to purchase and prepare her own has been met with refusals as well.

“Our seniors deserve a whole lot better than what they’re receiving,” said Gingrich.

Long-term care patients at Stuart Lake Hospital also receive the same food.

Gingrich said he will be contacting Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad about the issue as well, and would like to explore other possible options such as money going towards a community group willing to help prepare alternative meals for the seniors or partnering with the CNC cooking students.

“If there’s a more viable option out there it should be taken,” he said.

“We could challenge the mayor to have these meals for a month and see what happens,” said Sharlane Hamper, recreation coordinator at the Pioneer Lodge who sometimes helps deliver the meals when the volunteers are all busy.

She said complaints about the meals are common. As Hamper delivered the day’s meal to Charles, the previous day’s meal and plate he handed back was almost completely untouched.

According to Ann McCormick, chair of the Fort St. James Senior Citizens Home Society which acts as landlords for the facility, they have also worked extensively over the years to try and find a better solution.

“If we could do something else, we would,” said McCormick. She said the group is stuck with the funding formula which Northern Health sets for the assisted living accommodations, and to change to a different category of housing could mean the community may never get back designated assisted living spots which help keep seniors needing those services in the community.

Instead, seniors requiring the additional care would have to go to Vanderhoof or other communities.

The entirely volunteer board which runs the facility, doing all the necessary administrative work and more, tried to find alternatives after the kitchen at Stuart Lake Hospital was shut down, researching a number of alternatives to the frozen meals from Northern Health. They looked at restaurants in the community and drew up a plan and presented it along with a budget to Northern Health.

“We did the work, we looked out in the community to make a difference,” she said.

However, finding a service provider who could create meals for just the two clients 365 days a year in a commercial kitchen was difficult, and Northern Health said it was too costly.

McCormick wants to see the meals improve, and while Northern Health has changed their meal prove three times during this period to try and improve things, she said they are still not the best.

“As landlord’s we’re caught,” she said. “Do I advocate the seniors getting together and talking about it, absolutely,” she said.

Jonathon Dyck, communications officer for Northern Health said food service in health care can be very personal.

Dyck also said the cost of the assisted living is calculated based on income, and the cost of food is not separated out.

“We try to accommodate our long-term clients as best as possible,” said Dyck.

He said the food service delivery is done in this way for a number of reasons including: it allows for a more standardized menu, making it easier to follow Canada’s Food Guide, can accommodate special dietary requirements such as low sodium or food allergies, and cost.

“We always welcome feedback and we try to accommodate our residents as best as possible,” said Dyck.

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