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Seniors advocates call for longer and more frequent visits to care homes
The COVID virus has negatively impacted many lives, from those out of work to parents struggling to find child care when schools were closed to business owners who shuttered their doors. But none more than our seniors who have been locked away in assisted living and long-term care facilities.
And while the pandemic’s mortality rate has been higher among seniors than other age groups, life and death have not been their only struggle.
Over the last nine months, 151 seniors in British Columbia died from the COVID virus, but 4,500 seniors also died from other causes. And almost all of them died alone.
In an online meeting, last week about seniors advocacy arranged and hosted by North Island-Powell River MP Rachel Blaney, more than 80 participants heard BC Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie call to lift the restrictions that have prevented family member visitations.
“You have to ask, what is the purpose here?” Mackenzie said.
In a report also released last week, Mackenzie said that a survey of 13,000 care facility residents about their experiences during the pandemic showed seniors would have preferred to see their families and taken the risk of contracting the virus.
Before the pandemic, most seniors were visited by family members for an hour or more several times per week and some daily. These family visitors performed essential care for residents, such as grooming, assistance with feeding and staying mobile.
But that all came to a halt as the virus spread quickly through long-term care and assisted living facilities in the early stages of the pandemic. During the first four months, family members could not visit their loved ones at all.
Under current visitation policies, the majority of family visits are only once a week or less, and more than half are for less than 30 minutes. And recreation activities at the homes had also ground to a halt and even now remain limited.
“When we initiated visit restrictions back in March, most of us, myself included, supported the measure,” Mackenzie said about her survey and report. “However, I did not foresee that nine months later we would be where we are today, with prolonged separations for some family members and only brief impersonal visits for many more.”
Mackenzie said the restrictions have created a nine-month suspension of individual liberties.
But she and Laura Tamblyn Watts, the CEO of Canage, a national seniors advocacy organization, also noted that the measures taken by BC Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry in early March improved the province’s outcomes, which they agreed were the best in Canada. Ontario and Quebec had 10-times the infection and death rate as BC.
NATIONAL STANDARDS NEEDED
Noting that BC had the best response to COVID, MP Blaney said that shows that Canada needs a national strategy for seniors.
Blaney worked on a 2018 committee report as the NDP Critic for Seniors Issues at the time that made 29 recommendations, including reviewing Guaranteed Income Supplement rates and creating a National Seniors Strategy, most of which have not been acted upon by the federal government.
“Recognizing that the provinces and territories are responsible for delivering many aspects of support and care for seniors, a properly resourced National Seniors Strategy would provide national standards, and a platform for sharing best-practices,” she told Decafnation after the online meeting. “We know we have an ageing population. It’s crazy that we don’t have a national plan and vision for providing our seniors with the dignity and care we all deserve.”
Seniors Advocate Mackenzie said the federal government has to champion a Canada-wide coordinated approach. She said other countries with a system similar to ours, such as Australia, have a strong national regulator.
Mackenzie suggested that governments could attach strings to seniors program funding as an incentive for the owners of private care homes to “do the right things”
“It’s the way we fund them (that’s the problem),” she said. “We should say, spend these dollars on X and spend these dollars on Y, instead of handing them an envelope of money.”
For example, Mackenzie said, some funding should be specified to pay the care staff more, not just to hire more staff.
A wide variety of other topics were covered during the two-hour meeting, most of which have been discussed previously.
“We have a growing population of seniors across Canada, but especially in our riding,” Blaney told Decafnation. “In 2017, I did a series of town halls around our riding to hear from seniors and many of the issues they raised are the same ones that are getting national attention now because of the pandemic.
“As we heard (during the online meeting), some great work is being done to show a path forward. Now we need to follow it.”
SURVEY SHOWS SENIORS NEED MORE VISITS
Before the pandemic, 55% of families were visiting long-term care and assisted living residents for an hour or more several times per week and even daily;
Prior to COVID-19, the majority of visitors were performing essential care for residents, such as personal care, grooming, assistance with feeding and mobilization;
Most family members were not aware of the possibility of essential visits during the first four months of visit restrictions, and almost half of the people who did apply for an essential visit were refused;
Under the current visitation policy, the majority of visits are only once a week or less, and half the visits in long-term care are 30 minutes or less;
30% of current visits are outside only;
Currently, 65% of visits are observed by staff for some or all of the time;
Only 21% of visits are in the privacy of the resident’s room (75% of long-term care residents and almost 100% of assisted living residents live in private rooms);
70% of visitors are not allowed to touch their loved one;
Most visitors are washing their hands, wearing a mask, having their temperature checked, and answering health questions prior to each visit; and
Most family members and residents support some visit restrictions during the pandemic, although they believe visits should be more frequent and that at least one more visitor for each resident should be permitted.
— BC Seniors Advocate office
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