New Perspectives: A Senior Moment – “STAY AT HOME?”

Day after long weary day, we fight to keep the invisible wolf from our door. The battle takes place primarily on the front doorstep. No one—extended family, friend, neighbour, handyman— is allowed in. No one except for essential workers, is allowed out, apart from those brief, masked trips to pick up food, gas or medicine or perhaps to anxiously risk a lonely walk down mostly deserted streets. We are repeatedly told by government and public health specialists to stay at home.

Those few businesses who remain open engage in similar warfare. No one just returned from foreign travel is allowed in, nor is a married couple accustomed to shopping together, certainly not anyone with a cough or evident fever. Shop keepers and cashiers hide protectively behind Plexiglas shields. Most stores and businesses simply have locked their doors to keep the enemy at bay.

But what if that invisible wolf is not lurking in the outside world ready to pounce, but already hiding inside your residence? Staying at home is not a refuge but possibly a death sentence. This is the tragic reality in many of our long term care facilities.

Ontario has 626 such facilities, places where the frail elderly, many with some level of dementia and /or significant physical disability, can be cared for. Currently, 114 care homes are battling outbreaks of COVID-19. As in any war, casualties quickly mount; to this date 216 residents are dead; 1229 cases are confirmed among residents and a further 621 among the dedicated but overworked staff caring for them. (As of April 17, Ontario counts an overall total of 478 deaths among the 9525 cases diagnosed.) A Toronto Star investigation concludes that there are likely more under-reported nursing home deaths. (April 15)

Why are long term care homes over represented in these Provincial deadly statistics? Start with the obvious fact of a vulnerable population already coping with underlying medical conditions. Bring them together several times a day for communal meals, snacks and social activities. Add to that the daily routines which see frontline staff moving from room to room bringing laundry or doing cleaning. Simply put, in most such facilities, physical distancing between residents and isolation of those infected is difficult, if not impossible.

As a minister, I have visited many parishioners in at least eight regional care homes over past years. While some buildings are newer and residents have their private rooms, others are overcrowded with roommates separated by a sheet or curtain. I have long been saddened that we have inadvertently “warehoused” too many of our most vulnerable. Here is part of what I wrote in this space on August 4, 2019:

“In my mind I can still hear the incessant, simultaneous ringing of bells from multiple bedsides, residents calling for staff assistance. Some are incontinent, some need help with dressing or other personal needs, Others are confused or lonely, calling out for reassurance or comfort. It is no coincidence that front line workers typically wear running shoes. Most days they can be run off their feet. In my encounters with these women and men, I have frequently told them that if I ruled the world, I would transfer money from overpaid athletes and entertainers and use this windfall to provide much higher salaries to overworked and underpaid, nursing home frontline staffs.”

Little did I imagine that six months later, COVID-19 would begin its devastating rampage through Ontario’s nursing homes, striking down residents and staff alike. This crisis has cast a spotlight on the need for better designed residences and higher salaries to more fairly compensate staff who care for our most vulnerable. These women and men are the unsung heroes in our current war against this new and unseen enemy, risking their lives each day as they go into battle. I commend them for their dedication.

The true measure of any society can be found

In how it treats its most vulnerable members

                                           — Gandhi