by Sherrin Griffin, VP, Operations, Sidney SeniorCare –
As we approach the holidays with mixed feelings of excitement, and trepidation due to the current pandemic, we know that this festive season will be like no other. We desperately need all the tidings of comfort and joy that come with this special time of year, but we are well aware of the hidden dangers of letting our guard down with COVID-19.
It is also a time to take note of our more vulnerable populations, and ensure that their special needs are being met. The elderly, already at risk for loneliness and depression, can really struggle during the holiday season, and with the restrictions imposed due to the virus our seniors will have a tougher time this year for sure!
In November, Isobel Mackenzie, our dedicated Seniors Advocate for B.C., released the report Staying Apart to Stay Safe: the Impact of Visit Restrictions on Long-term Care and Assisted Living, with the results of a province-wide survey conducted this past August. More than 15,000 people participated with feedback and personal stories of isolation and family separation imposed by COVID restrictions, the resulting physical, mental and emotional decline of their senior loved ones, and the anguish experienced by residents and their families. Along with the outpouring of letters, phone calls and emails to the Office of the Seniors Advocate, the survey results made it painfully clear that this enforced quarantine from family members has taken a toll far greater than we could have forecasted. Survey respondents also expressed urgency that long-term care residents cannot continue to exist, let alone thrive, in these conditions for the additional 12 months or longer that it will take to successfully contain COVID. And perhaps the most poignant revelation of all – residents expressed that they weren’t as afraid of contracting the virus as they were of dying without their loved ones close by.
The survey also revealed that long-term care (LTC) homes and assisted living (AL) facilities are not consistent in how they are managing visitation or the needs of their residents and families during the pandemic. Many survey respondents had less confidence in quality of care, felt less informed than before the pandemic and less involved in decision making regarding their loved one’s care.
To date, 151 residents of LTC/AL facilities have died from COVID-19. However, also during this pandemic, more than 4,500 residents have died from conditions other than the virus. Tragically, in their final days, most of these residents were unable to spend quality time with, let alone hug or even touch, those they loved the most.
The big question is have we hurt our seniors more in our attempts to keep them safe from the virus? How do we mitigate the risk of contracting COVID, without negatively impacting the quality of life and time spent with family?
Isobel Mackenzie suggests that we need to more officially recognize the role that some family members play as essential care providers, based on survey results that over 50% of visiting family members were performing essential tasks such as personal care, grooming, feeding and mobility assistance. However, very few residents actually received an essential visit during Phase I of visit restrictions, with less than half of survey respondents applying for an essential visit and almost half of those requests denied – evidence that essential visits were mishandled, perhaps not encouraged or fully understood.
In addition to the essential care visitor, the report suggests that we need to allow for social visitors as well, and to move visits away from common areas and into residents’ rooms where feasible to alleviate the load on LTC/AL facilities, and allow more privacy, more frequent and longer visit times for residents and their families.
Overall, feedback from residents and family members has indicated that they feel they have no say in the policies and procedures of the LTC/AL system. In response, the November report has recommended that the Ministry of Health and the Office of the Seniors Advocate work together to develop a Long-Term Care & Assisted Living Resident and Family Council Association with the mission to promote best practices and improve quality of life for its residents. Members would include resident and family councils from all LTC/AL facilities operated under the Hospital Act or the Community Care and Assisted Living Act. The Association would give residents and family members the voice and representation they need on par with owners and operators of care homes.
While many of us enjoy time with family and friends this holiday season, residents of LTC/AL homes are still only allowed one designated visitor. The best gift we can give these seniors is to not forget them, to stay informed regarding current COVID policies and protocol, and commit to advocate for better quality of life for all our senior loved ones.