Island Health staff work hard to safely reunite long-term care residents with loved ones

“Seeing him is the most wonderful thing in my life. It’s just great.” Ruby MacDonald, a diminutive nonagenarian and resident of Cairnsmore Place long-term care home in Duncan, has just been reunited with her son, Garnett, after being separated for four long months.

As with all long-term care homes in British Columbia, visitor restrictions at Cairnsmore Place were implemented in March to protect vulnerable residents and their caregivers from contracting COVID-19. Recently, those restrictions were eased to encourage reunions between a single designated visitor and residents of long-term care.

Prior to the visit, which was booked in advance, Garnett was carefully screened by Cairnsmore Place staff for symptoms of COVID-19. He then sanitized his hands and placed a mask on his face before being escorted to a specific visiting area where his mother eagerly waited for him to arrive for their much anticipated reunion.

“Seeing my mom has been very emotional,” he says quietly behind his mask. “I just let her talk and kept her going. She was very interested in hearing about her grandchildren and her great- grandchildren.”

Garnett typically visits his mother 2-3 times per week so the visitor restrictions have been very difficult for them both. Ruby has other children who would also like to visit, but Garnett is located nearby and can spend the most time with his mom. He knows that Ruby was feeling depressed by her lack of visitors.

“It’s been lonely – I really can’t explain it. It’s all in here,” Ruby points to her heart as her eyes fill with tears. “I just missed him.”

The decision to restrict visitors was not made lightly. Currently, there has not been an outbreak in any Island Health long-term care facility and staff are committed to keeping it that way.

“We all understand the need for long-term care residents to receive emotional support from their loved ones,” says Tim Orr, Island Health Director, Long-Term Care. “This difficult decision was made for the benefit of the greater good, realizing there would be huge sacrifices on the part of some because of it. We are so pleased that we have now started to safely facilitate face to face visits at our long-term care homes.”

While Island Health is committed to facilitating as much visitation as possible, coordinating the visits in a safe manner while also incorporating enhanced cleaning measures has created more work for staff. As such, the provincial government has committed to funding extra staff to help make safe visits possible, a move that is greatly appreciated by the health authority.

“Families are very anxious to see their loved ones, and rightfully so, but at the same time, staff are working hard to arrange visits while protecting residents from COVID-19,” says Orr. “We just want families to have the confidence in knowing that their loved ones are well cared for and safe.”

Staff at Cairnsmore Place and at other facilities across the Island have also been trying to fill the voids for residents that COVID-19 has created. Over the past several months, much time has been spent facilitating phone and virtual visits through platforms such as FaceTime. Some healthcare foundations have donated iPads, and many sites have arranged window visits where loved ones can speak on the phone with residents through glass.

“The team at Cairnsmore has stepped up immensely to provide love and support and be like family for those folks who haven’t been able to see their own families,” says Gail Kerrone, Site Manager, Cairnsmore Place.

“I read many emails from spouses and from children to provide a sense of connection and let our residents know they haven’t been forgotten,” says Sam Miiller, Activity Supervisor, Cairnsmore Place. “It’s been very difficult because at this point in our residents’ lives, family is everything to them.”

Loved ones are considered an important part of the long-term care team and typically are encouraged to be active participants in residents’ day to day lives, often volunteering in a variety of roles at each home. For many people, COVID has overturned their entire routine, leaving staff to step in and step up for their residents.

“I’ll often take a resident to a quiet spot and spend one on one time with them,” says Miiller. “It’s all about connections. A lot of these people live in the moment and if in the moment we can bring them joy, then that’s what it is all about for us.”

“Families are a part of this building and play an important role in staying connected to the home and to the residents,” says Kerrone. “Witnessing our residents being reunited with their loved ones is incredibly emotional. We can’t imagine how they are feeling.”

The revised long-term care visitor policy in British Columbia is being monitored with the possibility of expansion later in the summer.

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 Dominic Abassi