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'Tragedy' For Long-Term Care Residents Facing Holidays Away From Families

With visitor restrictions in place, “Christmas is no different than any other day.”
Volunteers drop off gifts at Orchard Villa long-term care home in Pickering, Ont.
Volunteers drop off gifts at Orchard Villa long-term care home in Pickering, Ont.

What started as a family conversation around how Christmas is about more than getting gifts has grown into a community rallying for residents of an Ontario long-term care home.

Shereen Daghstani and her husband wanted to find a way to show their five-year-old daughter the value of giving during the holidays this year. The family doesn’t have any connections to Orchard Villa — the Pickering, Ont. long-term care facility hardest hit in the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic — but decided to organize an initiative to give gifts to the residents there.

“I think what we realized is that the seniors at Orchard Villa have been through a lot, lost a lot of people through the pandemic and the outbreak that occurred there,” Daghstani, who is the director of communications for a municipal property assessment corporation, told HuffPost Canada.

A volunteer helps with the gift drop-off at Orchard Villa in Pickering, Ont.
A volunteer helps with the gift drop-off at Orchard Villa in Pickering, Ont.

She posted a callout to her community online and told family and friends about the idea. Her daughter wrote a letter to neighbours explaining the initiative.

She expected they’d get 20 bags. She ended up with 189 for Orchard Villa residents, as well as hundreds more for other local nursing homes.

“We know that some of the seniors in the long-term care homes have dementia and Alzheimer’s so they can benefit from colouring books and puzzles. So lots of people have included that, and everyone has just made an effort to make it special for them,” she said.

This year, Canadian long-term care residents need cheering up more than ever. The pandemic has devastated these facilities, with more than 2,500 resident deaths in Ontario alone. It’s estimated 80 per cent of the country’s total deaths during the pandemic’s first wave came from long-term care.

And the pandemic has exposed faults in the country’s long-term care sectors and facilities. There have been calls for widespread changes, such as making privately owned long-term care companies public. At the same time, the tragedies are continuing into the second wave, with hundreds more deaths and large outbreaks across the country.

These have been devastating not only for residents, but for their families, many of whom have faced lockouts and restrictions on visiting their loved ones.

Shana Grace worries this could be her father’s last Christmas — and she can’t spend it with him.

Grace works at a congregate care facility currently experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak. She doesn’t feel safe visiting her 89-year-old father, Ronald, who is a resident at Chartwell Aurora long-term care home in Ontario.

During the pandemic, Ronald’s health has declined. Alone for most of the day in a dark room, he has stopped speaking and is no longer mobile.

Shana Grace and her daughter Mackenzie took Ronald out for his favourite meal — fish and chips — in September, when Ontario's COVID-19 rules were allowing for more visits.
Shana Grace and her daughter Mackenzie took Ronald out for his favourite meal — fish and chips — in September, when Ontario's COVID-19 rules were allowing for more visits.

“I try not to really dwell on it, because it’s too…. It’s really quite sad, the whole situation. Christmas is no different than any other day,” Grace told HuffPost. “We can’t visit, we can’t hug, we can’t kiss, he can’t see our expressions.”

Sharon Ranalli, Chartwell’s vice-president of marketing and communications, said in a statement the company understands it isn’t easy to be away from loved ones “and appreciate[s] the vigilance of family members self-identifying as being at higher exposure in the community in order to protect their loved ones.”

Chartwell is committed to ensuring residents feel supported, she said, adding staff are co-ordinating video visits and recreation programs for residents, including individual activities when lockdowns prevent common areas from being used.

If the pandemic wasn’t happening, Grace would have brought her family to visit Ronald at the care home on Christmas Day.

“It would have been nice to just have a meal in their common area at the home, and to have him enjoy watching the kids run around,” she said. “And it’s unfortunate that he’s not going to be able to see his grandchildren in person.”

Grace is not alone in her concerns.

At one London, Ont. home owned by Revera, new restrictions limit the number of visitors in the home at one time to 20 — and the one-hour visits have to be booked in advance.

“It's just not going to happen for people who just sporadically come on special occasions.”

- Donnafaye Milton

Donnafaye Milton, an essential caregiver for her 94-year-old mother who lives at the home, told HuffPost she hasn’t told her mom about the restrictions because she knows how sad it will make her.

“Anybody that still has their cognitive abilities, like my mom, knows that it’s Christmas time, is excited to get presents, to get cards, to see people, to just share in the excitement of the season,” she said. “And now, she won’t be able to do that.”

Revera’s visitor restrictions are in line with Ontario’s tiered system of regional lockdowns, which allow a certain number of visitors to a residence or home at one time, spokesperson Marie Fitzpatrick said in a statement.

“Please know that we truly appreciate how these arrangements are not ideal, particularly during the holiday season,” she said.

The company has also been using more staff to co-ordinate virtual visits, Fitzpatrick added.

“We know that the holidays are important and want to do our very best to connect our families during this challenging time.”

Milton knows other essential caregivers at the home who help their loved ones get up and dressed in the morning, and assist with feeding. But the one-hour limit on visits means less time to provide that extra care, companionship or intellectual stimulation, which she said staff are often too busy to provide.

She also worries that the home, which she said is already short staffed, will have even fewer employees during the holidays as some take vacation time. And without essential caregivers, she fears residents’ quality of care will suffer.

Essential caregivers provide an “enormous” amount of both physical and emotional care for residents, Janice Keefe, director of the Nova Scotia Centre on Aging, told HuffPost.

“It’s very heartbreaking for them not to be able to attend to their loved ones’ needs when they’re concerned that there isn’t enough staff to do so,” she said.

Keefe added there are also a number of family members who would visit their loved ones before the pandemic who may not have the “essential caregiver” designation during it. She said other residents, some of whom might not have family members to visit, would also benefit from these social visits.

“It’s a really tough situation for those family members,” she said. “I definitely feel badly for them, and I think it’s just a real tragedy at this, at any time of year.”

“... it sort of gets reinforced around a time like Christmas when we want to be together as much as possible.”

- Janice Keefe

“And I think part of the challenge is that we’re close to some hope. But we’re not there yet, and it sort of gets reinforced around a time like Christmas when we want to be together as much as possible.”

She said there needs to be strong leadership in facilities to balance the visitor restrictions and safety precautions with recognizing the value essential caregivers bring. There should also be regional approaches, she said, noting some areas may not have outbreaks in homes.

As for Daghstani, she said she’s been touched by the community’s response to her family’s gift drive to help Orchard Villa residents.

“I feel like it’s moved us so much, the community coming together. And then, just hearing people’s stories. It’s changed us,” she said.

She noted the importance of the initiative to residents, both during this time of year and due to the pandemic.

“They didn’t bring this on. They don’t deserve it,” she said through tears. “And they just deserve respect, and they deserve warmth. Some of them don’t have anyone.”

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