Fort McMurray’s long-awaited continuing care centre welcomes first residents

More than 100 people lined the streets of downtown Fort McMurray on Wednesday to welcome residents to the city’s first continuing care home. 

The $102-million Willow Square Continuing Care Centre has been long-awaited in the northeast Alberta hub city. Fort McMurray seniors are regularly sent to communities hours away for continuing care or spend years in the local hospital, Northern Lights Regional Health Centre.

Lise Doucet says her mother has been living at the hospital for 14 years. She says she fought to make sure her mother, Emely Doucet, wasn’t sent to a continuing care centre in Lac la Biche or Bonnyville.

Emely was one of the first 40 residents who moved into Willow Square on Wednesday 

“It’s been a long time coming. They’ve deserved this for many, many years. And it’s sure nice to see it happen,” Lise said.

“One’s a hospital and one’s a home. There’s a big difference. You can’t compare the two at all.” 

Emely Doucet, pictured with grandson Dominic and daughter Lise Doucet, has been living in the local hospital for 14 years. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Iris Kirschner has advocated for a centre for decades. Her advocacy started long before her husband, Dave, was diagnosed with a rare neurological condition. 

“He didn’t want to finish his life on the third floor or the fourth floor of the Fort McMurray regional hospital,” said Kirschner. 

To get care for Dave, they moved to Edmonton.

“We didn’t want anyone else to have to leave their community and everybody they loved,” Iris said.

After moving to Edmonton to get her husband continuing care, Iris Kirschner drove in at 5:30 a.m. to make sure she could watch the first residents move into Willow Square. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Iris drove in from Edmonton at 5:30 a.m. to watch the first seniors move in. While there, she spotted a vehicle from the trucking company she founded with her husband in Fort McMurray. 

She said it was like he was stopping in to be a part of the day. Dave died in 2017. 

“I’m just so thrilled that nobody will have to experience what we did. And these people are going to be cared for right here in Fort McMurray.” said Kirschner.

Two decades in the making

Willow Square’s opening was delayed after it was damaged during the April 2020 flood. Construction has faced several setbacks along the way, including debates over its location and delays from the 2016 wildfire. 

Darline Reid, Alberta Health Services’ area manager for senior’s health in Fort McMurray, said the initial plans were made in 2000.  

“Now 20 years later, we welcome residents to the facility today,” said Reid. “We’re happy to be here today.” 

She said all 40 residents who moved in Wednesday had been living on the fourth floor of the hospital. 

The rest of Willow Square’s 108 beds will be filled over the next few weeks, Reid said. 

Forty seniors who had staying at the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre moved into the new continuing care home on Wednesday. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Joan Furber, president of the Fort McMurray Golden Years Society, said the community has needed the centre for years. 

“I personally think that we should be embarrassed that we didn’t get it until today, but what we have today we’re thankful for,” said Furber. 

Furber said the inside of the facility is beautiful and well-suited to the needs of local seniors.

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