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Pandemic restrictions deny Victoria couple of 63 years a birthday visit

Restrictions were put in place Jan. 1 amid soaring cases of COVID-19 allow residents one "essential visitor" — but not everyone gets one approved.
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Ken and Janet Leffek in 2014. Ken's near-daily visits to Janet, who has dementia and lives in a long-term care home, came to an end on Jan. 1 when visitor restrictions came into effect. COURTESY KEN LEFFEK

Janet Leffek turns 88 today, and all her husband wants is to be by her side — but pandemic visitor restrictions will deny the couple of 63 years that dignity.

“I’m not allowed to visit her on her birthday [and] it cuts me to the heart,” said Ken Leffek, 87.

Janet, no longer able to stand or walk independently, was admitted to Broadmead Care’s Veterans Memorial Lodge with dementia in July. Ken visited her on 163 of the next 164 days, missing only Remembrance Day.

For two hours each day, Ken attended to Janet’s needs, read the daily paper with her and “brought her back to reality” with old photos and stories. Caring staff encouraged all this, he said.

Those visits stopped on Jan. 1, when COVID-19 visitor restrictions, driven by surging daily cases of the Omicron variant, began. As of Friday, there were outbreaks in seven long-term care homes on the Island and a total of 3,906 known active cases within the Island Health region.

The restrictions allow each resident just one “essential visitor” — a designation made on a case-by-case basis by care facility administrators based on provincial criteria that includes visits for end of life and visits paramount to the resident’s physical care and mental well-being. That can include assistance with feeding, mobility, personal care or communication.

Ken, a retired Dalhousie University professor and dean, said his request was denied based on the fact his wife can feed herself.

“If she needs to wipe her nose, someone has to hand her a Kleenex,” he said. “When her wheelchair is left in the middle of her room, as it always is, she cannot move it even two feet to reach the call button, and if she could reach it, she does not understand that she must press the red button to summon a care worker.

“However, because she can move her forearms and get food into her mouth, that disqualifies her from having me as an essential visitor,” he continued. “An 88-year old physically and mentally infirm person should have, as a fundamental human right, access every day to her husband of more than 63 years.”

Geriatrician Roger Wong said this is the exact kind of situation prompting him to speak out against the restrictions.

“To families and loved ones such as Ken, it is not just frustrating — it’s heartbreaking to be told he is not essential,” said Wong, a clinical professor in the faculty of medicine at the University of British Columbia.

While older adults in seniors homes have been among hardest hit by COVID, Wong said it is short-sighted to apply the same restrictions now as early in the pandemic. “We have a lot more tools.”

And while Canadians 65 and older accounted for about 80 per cent of all COVID-19 deaths in 2020, the statistics don’t capture the “potential damage and devastating effects” of social isolation and loneliness, he said.

In his view, the order on visitor restrictions in long-term care should be “reversed” and visits should be recognized for both their physical and mental benefit and as a “basic human right.”

The restrictions are meant to be a temporary measure until rapid tests from the federal government arrive and a process for testing all visitors can be set up by each care home, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said this past week.

At that time, each resident will be automatically approved for a designated “social visitor,” she said.

Wong says it’s problematic for individual care homes to hand out these rights and sees a further problem in distinguishing between “essential” and “social” visitors. “Who gets to decide what is essential and what is social to this person, to every senior in long-term care?”

Seniors advocate Isobel Mackenzie has said her office is hearing from spouses and families being told they can’t visit even though they assist their loved one in a variety of ways. Mackenzie wants the province “to declare that every resident in long term care is entitled to designate at least one person as their essential visitor.”

A November 2020 review by her office showed 52 per cent of essential visitor requests were denied. Only about 25 per cent of long-term care residents have a designated “essential visitor.”

At Broadmead Care in Saanich, 69 requests were made over seven days, and 19 were approved, said president and CEO Derrick Bernardo.

The facility has 225 residents.

Bernardo said essential visitor status is given “if a resident’s care needs cannot be met by a staff member” and that resident requires a family member or a close friend provide the care. Decisions are made following strict criteria, he said, and an appeals process is open to anyone who is denied.

On Saturday, Ken recalled how he met Janet in 1956 during a “Saturday night dance” at University College, University of London, where he was studying. As they danced, they talked — he had a plan to go to Canada and she was from Canada and planned to return. “That immediately started off our relationship.”

The couple, who have two adult children, moved to Victoria in 1996.

Last month, as Christmas drew near, Janet became confused and thought each day was Christmas. Ken would, with love, set her straight. He brought her the paper each day — she can still read and sometimes even do the crossword — as a way to help keep her mind active.

Today, however, Ken will have to wish his wife happy birthday through Broadmead Care’s messaging system, sending a scanned version of a birthday card. It was too difficult for him to talk much about the impact of the restrictions and missing Janet’s birthday — he said he gets too emotional.

Even when he could visit, the stays seemed so short to Janet that she’d tell him: “Our marriage has finished; we’re not together anymore.” It’s hard on Ken to repeat this.

“But I tell her we can be together two hours every day and that’s better than nothing.”

ceharnett@timescolonist.com