By: Mike Anderson

With more than 50 nursing homes across the province reporting outbreaks of COVID-19, these are anxious times for people with loved ones in long-term care. 

So far, at least 69 people have died from the virus in Ontario’s long-term care and retirement homes, accounting for 45 per cent the province’s COVID-19 deaths, according to government data.

This grim fact has led to some people pulling their loved ones out of long-term care to ride out the pandemic at home with them. 

But for many people like Maureen McDermott, 56, who lives in Udora, that’s not an option. 

Ms. McDermott’s mother, Elsie, 92, who suffers from Alzheimer’s and dementia, requires constant care from personal support workers (PSWs).

Elsie is a resident of Sutton’s River Glen Haven Nursing Home, owned and operated by ATK Care Group Limited. 

The 119-bed long-term care home was quick to respond to the threat of COVID-19 in late February, adopting new protocols including a nurse at the front door to check the temperatures of visitors and to ensure everyone sanitized their hands. 

“The level of care and decisions they’ve made over COVID-19 has kept the unit completely safe. And for that, I’m so incredibly grateful,” said Ms. McDermott, who’s mother has been resident of River Glen Haven for just over a year. 

But it’s been a stressful time for Ms. McDermott, as she can no longer visit her mother.

On March 14, the province told long-term care homes to restrict visits to only those with a family member who is very ill or involved in end-of-life care. 

Then, on March 22, as the pandemic worsened, residents were prevented from leaving their long-term care homes for short visits with their families. Instead, phone calls and technology, like Skype and FaceTime, would have to suffice to keep residents connected with their families. 

Not being able to visit her mother has deeply affected Ms. McDermott, who is Elsie’s sole caregiver.

“I had four siblings pass away, so I’m doing this on my own,” she said. “So there are times when I get overwhelmed and burst into tears. So it’s really difficult.”

While staff at River Glen Haven help her to skype her mom, it’s no replacement for physically seeing her and hugging her.

“Picturing your mom scared and terrified and not being able to hold her and console her is the absolute worst,” she said. 

Ms. McDermott says the home’s PSWs are doing their best to console her mother, but they’re no replacement for family. 

“They’re angels every single one of them,” she said. “I’ve walked in there at times, and there’s been one on each side of my mum hugging her, and I know they can’t do that right now. It’s tough for me too. I’m a big hugger.”

And without that constant attention, her mother has become extremely anxious at times. 

“I skyped with her yesterday, but two hours later, she had completely forgotten that conversation had taken place and called me in total distress,” she said.

“There’s nothing I can do about it. I can just show compassion and care and love and do what I can do.” 

No longer having access to her mother, Ms. McDermott has been forced to catch a glimpse of her through a first-floor window at the nursing home. And, on March 31, she decided to celebrate her 56th birthday outside her mom’s window. 

“I’m going to decorate her window and bring some balloons, put a little sign up saying you became my mom 56 years ago today,” she said.

“You’ve got to reinvent things. I posted something on Facebook that says instead of birthday cards and well wishes, can everybody just shoot my mom an email or send her artwork. She doesn’t have a clue who they are, but she loves getting them.”

Maureen celebrates her 56th birthday with her mom by pretending to blow her a kiss
Elsie in her room at River Glenn

Although she approves of the precautions River Glen Haven has taken, Ms. McDermott is concerned that it might not be enough. She’s particularly worried about the lack of personal protection equipment (PPE), like face masks, for PSWs. 

She’s worried that one of the staff might be asymptomatic and unwittingly infect a resident, possibly her mom. 

“I’m terrified that one of these PSWs is going to be a carrier, and they’re going to walk into work,” she said. “And my mom gets infected, and I’m not going to be able to be there with her.” 

“That is my biggest fear — that my mom dies alone in there. So let’s keep these front line workers safe for God’s sake.” 

For Willow Beach resident Dave Dewaal, 58, that fear is constant. His 89-year-old mother is a resident at Markhaven Home for Seniors in Markham, the site of a recent COVID-19 outbreak that has left six residents dead. 

“What’s making me anxious is not being able to see my mother,” he said. “I know if she got it, the chances are not good at her age.”

Mr. Dewaal and his brother, who lives just five minutes away from the nursing home, we’re able to communicate with their mother using FaceTime. But even that’s stopped, as staff are too busy dealing with the outbreak. 

While some families can see their loved ones through windows, Mr. Dewaal, who’s wife and brother have underlying health issues, can’t risk visiting the nursing home. Instead, they call the head nurse for updates on their mom’s condition.

“My mom can’t even talk on the phone,” he said. “But I think it’s kind of good that she has Alzheimer’s, because she would be very nervous if she knew what was going on right now.”

Like many of the family members, Mr. Dewaal is grateful for the work the staff are doing under such difficult conditions. He also says since the outbreak, staff have received more PPE from the province.

“They have everything now, so they don’t touch my mother,” he said.

While the risk to the province’s most vulnerable population remains high, public health officials have promised to increase testing in Ontario’s long-term care homes. 

There is also a commitment to improving infection control measures, including isolating ill patients. 

However, there’s still a shortage of face masks and other PPE for PSWs, with unions, associations and opposition parties calling on the government to divert more supplies of PPE to long-care homes.

These developments follow the province’s controversial temporary emergency order for long-term care facilities, which removed training requirements for PSWs and allowed the use of volunteers to fill-in for staff who catch the virus.

To date, more than 500 of Ontario’s health-care workers have tested positive, representing about 11 per cent of total confirmed cases. However, it’s not know how many of those are long-term care workers, as the province doesn’t provide occupational data.

With files from Canadian Press

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