Feelings of loss, desperation grow; advocates urge easing of visits to care homes

When 86-year-old Don Malcolm tried to reach through the glass window of his seniors’ home to his wife on the other side, it was almost too painful to bear for her.

Malcolm, who has dementia, has been a resident at the Comox Valley Seniors Village for more than four years. His wife of 38 years, Delores Broten, hasn’t seen him since March 8, when visiting restrictions were put in place. Five weeks ago, she decided to visit him from the other side of his window.

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“He tried reaching out to touch my hand through the window,” said Broten, “and he reached all the way up and all the way down the window — because he doesn’t know what a window is — and he’s trying to reach my hand and I just collapsed. I couldn’t stand it, you know — that was just so painful.”

As Broten stood outside her husband’s ground-floor room, other residents who had been in the facility for months without a visit from families also reached out.

“It was terrible — there were people knocking on the upper-floor windows and waving,” said Broten, who heads Crying Out Loud, a volunteer group of about 20 that successfully advocated last year toward having a public administrator appointed to oversee Comox Valley Seniors Village.

Crying Out Loud joined with other groups to send a letter this week to health authorities asking for a timeline for allowing family members to visit long-term-care residents.

“Our groups understand the need for the lockdown, but this is almost three months and no end in sight,” Broten said.

Long-term-care facilities have been limited to essential visits only since March 17 to protect vulnerable residents and minimize the spread of COVID-19. Essential visitors are mainly workers, volunteers and those visiting on compassionate grounds if the resident is dying, for instance.

Ninety-three of the 164 people who have died of COVID-19 in B.C. have been residents of long-term-care and assisted-living facilities. But while there are 13 active outbreaks of COVID-19 in the Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health regions in the Lower Mainland — including one new outbreak, a single case, at Nicola Lodge in Fraser Health on Thursday — there have been no outbreaks in long-term-care, assisted living or acute-care hospitals on Vancouver Island. Of 127 confirmed cases in the Island thus far, just one active case remains.

In light of the low numbers, B.C. Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie asked last week when families will be allowed to visit loved ones in seniors homes in health regions with no outbreaks. Many families are asking the same question.

Broten communicates with her husband through Skype calls and has watched him go downhill.

“I think he is losing his spirit and I am terrified because I want to be with him as he goes through what he goes through. I promised him and me I would be there.”

Broten said there are a number of safe ways visits could happen, suggesting everything from Plexiglas barriers to outdoor visits or regular visitor testing. “I’m not a doctor, but there has to be some way out of here.”

Mary Dewar of Seniors in Care Crisis, which advocates for improvements in long-term care, said she visited her husband, Robert, 65, daily prior to the pandemic at Retirement Concepts — Nanaimo Seniors Village Complex Care to share a meal, help with his exercises and appy lotion on his rashes. “I grieve every day for the loss of precious time with my husband.”

Mackenzie has said almost 8,000 people died in B.C. last year while in long-term care and assisted living.

“People are at risk there anyway,” said Broten.

“You don’t go into long-term care expecting to come out alive. To be kept in a prison at the same time, even a well-meaning one, it’s just adding to the agony we’re all going through as a normal life passage.”

Sheila Schmidt of Langford was visiting her 87-year-old mother, Nancy Tulk, through a fence at Gorge Road Hospital until she said she received a phone call saying that and window visits aren’t permitted.

Schmidt said she can accept not visiting inside the facility but outside? “It seems unreasonable that it wouldn’t be allowed, and continues not to be allowed, even though other things are being relaxed.”

Schmidt, who said she has not been offered or allowed to arrange video chats and has had only one phone call, said she doesn’t know if her mother will remember her by the time she’s allowed to see her again. She said she keeps in touch using another resident’s cellphone.

“There’s nothing — it’s just ‘no, no visits.’ I just feel not enough is being done.”

Schmidt said she’s tired of hearing something will happen in the future “because they don’t have much future left.”

On Thursday, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the province’s “SWAT team” approach to infection control and aggressive testing and restrictions in seniors homes has served B.C. well.

When COVID-19 gets into long-term care, residents “can get sick very, very quickly and might have very few symptoms,” making it hard to control, she said.

At Lynn Valley, the first home with an outbreak, residents feeling “just a little bit off” died quickly, Henry said.

“The challenge is that it’s hard to measure what might have happened had we not [imposed restrictions],” she said. “We can only, by analogy, look at what happens in other places.”

Health Minister Adrian Dix said B.C. health officials have understood the vulnerability of people living in long-term care since the first outbreak at the Lynn Valley care home.

Unions, private-care providers, denominational health associations and health authorities have worked together to help control the spread of the virus, said Dix, who pointed to several measures that were taken beyond visitor restrictions, including a single supply chain for personal protective equipment for public and private facilities, an order that staff work at only a single site, aggressive testing, and investments in enhanced infection-control measures for all facilities.

The fact that the death toll has been lower in B.C. than in other provinces is no reason to relax restrictions, he said.

Mike Klassen, acting CEO of the B.C. Care Providers Association, said families have made an incredible sacrifice during restrictions on visitation during the pandemic, but he called the virus “extraordinarily pernicious.”

“When it gets into a care home it can wreak havoc,” said Klassen. “Even some of the best care homes in the province run by, you know, fantastic operators, have really struggled once COVID-19 gets within their walls.”

He said he understands families are anxious to restart visits and he’s heard “heartbreaking stories,” but the reality is that visitors could carry the virus. As well, preparing for a visit requires an extraordinary amount of work — including the use of personal protective equipment — and additional resources at a time when staffing is already stretched.

Klassen said conversations about creative approaches to arranging outdoor visits are ongoing. Such measures will have to operate under recommendations rather than hard rules, because some facilities won’t lend themselves to outdoor visits or other accommodations for visitors.

“There are a lot of people involved in the conversation right now and we acknowledge this is very difficult, but at the same time we just have to ask for people’s patience as this process is able to move forward,” said Klassen.

“At the end of the day, most family members really want to make sure that their loved ones are safe and kept as healthy as possible within the care home, and that means putting in measures to protect against the spread of the virus.

“Everybody, including the ministry and our operators are all trying to figure it out, but it’s going to take more time.”

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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