Jack Knox: At last, a ray of sunshine for isolated care-home residents

Andrea Toombs hasn’t hugged her father in more than year.

Nor has Doug Toombs, 88, been out of his Oceanside-area care home since last March 6, when Andrea and her brother took him to Nanaimo, where he dined at his beloved A&W.

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At least Andrea has joined him half a dozen times since becoming her dad’s designated visitor around Christmas. His grandchildren haven’t seen Doug at all.

So, it was with relief that Andrea learned Thursday that ­restrictions at B.C.’s long-term care and assisted-living homes will ease by April 1.

There’ll be hugs, regular visits with friends and family, and ­off-site excursions that won’t require anyone being put in isolation upon return. This is the day B.C.’s ­isolated care-home residents have been waiting for.

“I think it will have a huge effect on my father’s well-being and the well-being of the other residents,” the Victoria woman said.

Also relieved was B.C.’s seniors advocate, Isobel Mackenzie, who last fall released a heartbreaking report in which she said people living in care homes were more afraid of dying of loneliness than of COVID-19.

“It’s very good,” Mackenzie said of the changes announced by Dr.  Bonnie Henry.

The provincial health officer said that as of next Thursday, all residents in long-term care and assisted living will be able to have “regular, frequent and routine” visits of at least an hour. Among the measures:

• The rule that limited residents to just one designated social visitor (and that forced family members to choose who would have that privilege) is being thrown out. Instead, the doors will be opened to friends and family — though only two of them, plus a child, will be allowed at a time. The visits will still have to be booked in advance, and ­visitors will have to refrain from meeting more than one resident or taking part in group activities

• It will be possible to visit ­residents in their rooms, without staff present.

• What Henry called “the all-important physical touch” will be allowed again, though visitors will still have to wear masks and make sure they wash their hands and so on.

• Physical distancing requirements between residents will be dropped so that small groups of them can dine together again, or take part in social or recreational activities.

• Residents will be able to go on outings with no requirement for quarantine when they return.

That last bit — the chance to be wheeled along the Willows Beach walkway, or even taken for a simple car ride — will be hugely ­important to many, Mackenzie said. Her ­survey last fall drew more than 7,000 responses, many of them ­gutting tales of loneliness from ­people who said they would rather contract COVID‑19 than never see their children again.

Note, Mackenzie said Thursday, that residents have had to endure a further six months of isolation since the report came out. “For some, it’s been very traumatic,” she said.

One of the issues has been the different way in which different care home operators have interpreted the visitor-restriction guidelines, what Henry referred to as a troubling “inconsistency.”

Mackenzie was cheered by the tone Henry struck in saying that it is time for the doors to be ­widened. Logistics might limit access, but care homes are now expected to accommodate visitors where ­possible. The idea that someone will arbitrarily be held to, say, once a week for an hour won’t fly, ­Mackenzie said. “The signal has been very clear.”

The loosening comes even as B.C.’s overall COVID numbers worsen. “The reality is that it is likely we are going to have more outbreaks in care homes now that we’re allowing more people to come into those care homes,” Henry said, “but we’re at a point where the benefits of having those social ­connections and interactions ­outweigh those risks, and we know that we can manage those risks with the vast majority of residents and staff now being protected with immunization.”

As it is, though, there are currently only three outbreaks in B.C. long-term care and assisted-living homes, down from 42 on Jan. 15.

And, if all goes well, care-home restrictions could ease even more by the end of June.

As for Andrea Toombs, she just looks forward to being together with her father and brother again. “It would be so nice.”

jknox@timescolonist.com

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