Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, Maria Michelenas-McLaughlin recalled watching her mother’s long-term care deteriorate.
In the late 1990s, she saw her mother bathe twice a week, reduced to a weekly sponge bath, and said her mother had been fed an unidentified “porridge” by staff and dealt with harassment by other residents.
These visits were a significant delay – many elderly people were refused during the pandemic.
While past treatment of elderly people in long-term care has raised some concerns, Michelenas-McLaughlin, 79, says the future worries her now. The widow currently lives alone in Toronto, but with limited mobility, she knows she will eventually need help.
The next concern I have is whether I will be able to speak gently to the caregiver and say, “Please turn me gently?”
Mikelenas-Mcloughlin, former president of the Etobicoke division of the Canadian Pensioners’ Association (CARP), is among advocates calling on the government, long-term care homes and health care providers to ensure that older people do not face the same type of isolation now as them done in previous waves of the pandemic.
Their worries are growing as Ontario records approximately 100,000 to 120,000 cases a day during this sixth wave of the virus.
Maria Michelenas-McLaughlin is the former president of Etobicoke of the Canadian Pensioners’ Association. (Maria Michelenas-McLaughlin / Sent)
During the pandemic, the elderly were identified as among the most vulnerable to serious diseases and were among the first to be vaccinated.
At the same time, some of the people living in long-term care conditions have been neglected and living in anxious conditions after some provincial facilities were seized by COVID-19, according to findings made by Canadian Armed Forces and documented in a report in May 2020.
Lisa Levin, CEO of AdvantAge Ontario, a long-term nonprofit care provider, says some caregivers have compared the pandemic to isolation.
“What people didn’t realize was that when nursing homes were on fire, not only could they not see their families, but they couldn’t even see the other occupants of the homes,” she said. “They were literally in their rooms and they couldn’t go out.”
Since most residents and staff have been vaccinated, Levin said he believes people can afford to reduce their vigilance if they follow all precautions.
“We no longer need to keep the elderly isolated from their families,” she said. “We learned that doing this was almost as devastating as COVID itself.
However, she says, the virus remains a threat.
The pandemic killed 4,431 long-term careers, according to government figures, more than a third of all Ontario deaths due to COVID-19.
“Even though a lot of people are done with it, he’s still here… So we have to do everything we can to protect them.”
Poor communication has led to stress for the elderly
Craig Thompson, the Ontario Ombudsman for Patients, says a common theme in the 3,595 complaints the office has received from 2020 and 2021 is the restriction of visits to long-term care homes and poor communication between management and families. The complaints suggest that both problems have led to physical, emotional and cognitive decline in older people.
“We are talking about a very vulnerable population, so we will continue to see the effects of these restrictions for some time,” he said.
“It is not enough just to take measures to protect people. You need to mitigate the risks associated with the restrictions, he said.
Ontario plans to remove all other restrictions on COVID-19 on April 27, including camouflage in long-term care homes, retirement homes and health facilities. As of April 12, there are 140 long-term care homes and 117 retirement homes in the province with ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks. And as of March 14, vaccinations against COVID-19 are no longer mandatory for workers in the sector.
A woman visits her father’s cross, sitting with others shown in front of the Camilla Care Community Center. (Nathan Dennett / Canadian Press)
Bill Van Gorder, a senior spokesman for CARP, said that because the government showed no signs of adopting additional restrictions, it was the responsibility of family health care providers to advocate for the elderly.
“What we need is consistency and the ability of patients and their families, our residents and their families to be able to help make the decision. Older people want the decisions made with them – not for them.”
He said clear communication was key, noting that providers should avoid non-compliance with the rules, as this could lead to confusion and anger.
Ministry “to adjust measures if necessary”
The Ombudsman’s Ombudsman recommends that healthcare organizations adopt “least restrictive” restrictions on visits based on risks and evidence that policies are clearly communicated and exceptions to visits are granted out of compassion, according to a report published in March.
Meanwhile, the health ministry says it is monitoring long-term care homes and, after consulting with the chief medical director of health, will “adjust measures if necessary to keep homes safe for residents and staff.”
“We understand the mental and emotional difficulties these measures have had [long-term care] residents, as well as members of their families and relatives, “a ministry spokesman said in an email.
According to the ministry, all visitors, regardless of their vaccination status, have the right to enter a long-term care facility. There are no restrictions on the number of people allowed to visit outdoors, but long-term care homes can limit the number of visitors per resident based on available space.
Indoor visits have increased to four visitors or caregivers per resident at a time, and the requirements for testing, active screening, masking and physical distancing remain in place.
As of April 5, about 92% of eligible long-term carers had been vaccinated with their third dose, and more than 72% of eligible residents had been vaccinated with a fourth dose, the ministry said. More than 87.6% of eligible long-term care workers received a third dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
Now that the pandemic has put long-term concerns in the spotlight, Michelen-McLaughlin hopes more people will realize the fears that older people have been living with for decades.
“You have to grow old with dignity and respect – and have a voice in it,” she said. “Don’t put it off in the corner.”