A crisis is growing in seniors’ care homes, exposing how older people are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks of COVID-19. But those who work in these homes would tell you the crisis was there long before COVID-19 came to Canada, and that the pandemic is only putting a spotlight on it.
As reported by the Globe and Mail, more than 600 nursing and retirement homes across Canada have reported a rapidly growing number of COVID-19 infections and fatalities, with Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia hardest hit. Outbreaks at seniors’ homes have been linked to almost half of the COVID-19 deaths in Canada, with that number sadly expected to rise.
Late last week, horrifying news broke of 31 deaths at the private long-term care home Résidence Herron in Quebec. When government officials visited the home, they found patients in terrible conditions, suffering from dehydration, many covered in feces and in poor health. So far, five of the deaths in the home have been attributed to COVID-19, with more expected as more testing is conducted.
In Laval, north of Montreal, more than half of the 200 residents in the home Sainte-Dorothée have tested positive for COVID-19, along with 50 staff members, and eight people have died. Nurses brought in to help with the emergency say they face dangerous situations. “We went there, we had no orientation,” one nurse said, asking to remain anonymous. “We had no communication about where the medications were... where the equipment was. We don’t have any equipment, we need to wear the same mask, the same gowns, the same gloves between each patient.” Another nurse said when she asked for an N95 mask she was told she would have to buy one herself.
Virus having devastating toll on elderly and those that care for them
Lynn Valley Care Centre, a seniors’ home in North Vancouver, had Canada’s first confirmed COVID-19 death. Workers in the facility describe delays in getting information on one of the staff testing positive for COVID-19. Through March, eight residents died, while 36 residents and 18 staff were infected.
The Globe and Mail reported that, “The crisis in North Vancouver has revealed the devastating toll that the virus is having on the elderly, as well as those who care for them. The precarious nature of employment in many private nursing homes may have also contributed to the spread of the coronavirus. Many employees in the sector supplement their low wages by working at multiple facilities – an arrangement that has already led to one Lynn Valley employee being suspected of spreading the virus to a second long-term care home in nearby West Vancouver.”
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said this past weekend that the COVID-19 deaths in long-term care facilities across the country is a “tragic legacy of this pandemic.”
But is it a legacy of the pandemic, or a legacy of the privatization and government neglect that had already been happening for years?
Unions representing workers in long-term care homes have called for changes in the working conditions. Many workers tell stories of unmanageable workloads, staffing shortages and low pay. If this was true before the pandemic, certainly the conditions got worse when the virus hit.
Unifor, a union that represents long-term care workers in Ontario, has been running a campaign for the past year drawing attention to these workers. “The long term care sector in Ontario is at a crisis point,” Unifor’s website states. “Ongoing budgetary cuts, combined with short staffing and more complex patient needs mean that residents are not getting the care that they need.” The Canadian Union of Public Employees has also called on the federal government to act.
Today, the Ford government in Ontario announced more resources for long term care facilities and new rules that will prevent workers from working in more than one home. While this is a step in the right direction, any plan must ensure workers – who are frontline health care workers delivering care to vulnerable people – are protected and safe in their workplaces and do not suffer financial hardships as a result of these new rules.
More privatization, less public funding
Seniors’ care homes, whether they are independent living, assisted living or long-term care, suffer from the same patchwork approach as much of our health care system. There is growing privatization and less public funding. Decisions are made by for profit-shareholders rather than being based on the good of people that live there. Seniors and their families pay enormously high fees – thousands of dollars per month – with often only the barest of care essentials provided. The more care provided, the higher the bill.
The positions in these facilities, unless they are unionized, are often casual or part-time with low pay and little or no benefits. Many workers are employed in more than one seniors’ home to make ends meet. There is a high turnover rate, and homes are regularly short-staffed. During this pandemic some workers haven’t had access to the protective equipment, such as gloves and facemasks, that are needed to stop the spread of the virus.
And there is no overall federal strategy to coordinate regulations and care in seniors’ homes. Even now, with the crisis in seniors’ care homes growing, the federal government has been reluctant to override the provinces’ authority and instead has offered “guidelines” that have been “developed in close consultation with provincial and territorial counterparts.”
We have left our most vulnerable population – our elderly – in the care of (mostly) private corporations and governments that have not made seniors a priority. This must change.
Worried about a COVID-19 outbreak
A little over a year ago we helped my mom move into an independent/assisted living seniors’ home. Heart surgery and declining mobility meant she could no longer live on her own safely. We researched the options, toured some homes, and she chose the one that felt most comfortable to her.
At the time, it brought our family peace of mind knowing that help is there if she needs it, she would get three meals a day, laundry and cleaning services were included, and she would have people around her to do activities with. Having lived there for a year now, she has been helped by the hard-working staff, but has also talked about how her home would benefit from more staff.
On March 14, my mom’s home went on lockdown – no visitors in or out. The dining room is now off limits as everyone has their meals brought on trays to their rooms. This isolation has been difficult for her, and for other residents and their families. The staff all wear masks and gloves and take protective measures and so far, thankfully, her home has been virus-free. We can only hope it stays that way.