Susan Mills considers herself fortunate. As of Sept. 9, she’s been able to visit her 84-year-old mother, Barbara, daily at her long-term care home, west of Ottawa. Since May, Mills had been trying to become an essential caregiver — defined by the province as a visitor who provides essential support services and direct care to a resident.
Now as an essential caregiver, she has to keep a distance between herself and staff or other residents, but can be close to her mom. Before the province’s visitor guidelines changed to allow more regular visits, though, the indoor and outdoor visits were difficult because her mom is hard of hearing and the two had to keep a distance.
Window visits, Mills said, were better because her mom could see her face. She also talked to her mom on the phone, but as Barbara’s health declined, she couldn’t hold a phone and needed a staff member to put the call on speaker.
Her conversational skills decreased, too. Mills compensated by doing most of the talking and singing “You are my sunshine” to her. She was allowed in to visit twice for compassionate reasons, once when her mom choked and another time after her mom’s health began to deteriorate. Before the province’s updated rules, Mills was also part of a pilot project at the home to visit her mom during dinner twice a week.
“We should never have been locked out for six months, because they took away their support system and [residents] have the right to receive care,” she told HuffPost Canada.
WATCH: Ontario to allow resumption of long-term care family visits. Story continues below.
She said she feels lucky that her mom’s facility is following the province’s guidance, because she knows others aren’t. But one day this week, the home suspected an outbreak and temporarily prevented all visitors, including those with essential caregiver status like Mills, from getting in — even though the province’s guidelines state caregivers can visit at any time, including during an outbreak.
“That does not give me any comfort for the future,” she said. “Because I think, as soon as there’s an outbreak, we’re going to be locked out again.”
As COVID-19 cases rise in Ontario, it’s more important than ever to balance enforcing public health measures and taking care of residents’ mental and physical health — and that needs to be enforced in legislation as opposed to the current guidelines, says one NDP MPP.
Lisa Gretzky, who is the NDP’s opposition critic for community and social services, said she would table a private member’s bill called “More Than A Visitor Act” Wednesday, aiming to address what she calls the “flood of concerns” about visiting policies in communal care settings.
Keeping out essential caregivers during the COVID-19 pandemic, which Gretzky also acknowledged was a necessary step in the beginning to slow the spread of the virus, resulted in “devastating isolation, mental and physical decline, regressive behaviour and depression,” she said at a press conference Wednesday morning.
The province’s updated guidance states that as of Sept. 9, every resident can choose two caregivers, who can visit without time limits. Those visitors must pass a screening before entering the home, wear masks within the home and must have tested negative for COVID-19 within the past two weeks.
But the MPP said she has been hearing that the government’s guidance has been interpreted differently by different homes across the province, and some homes are still denying residents access to caregivers.
Long-term care homes must have a policy in place consistent with the government’s most recent directive on visits, ministry spokesperson Mark Nesbitt said. The visiting process may differ across homes “as each home is dealing with different issues” such as screening, social distancing or infection control protocols, he said.
The ministry has received some questions from homes and is responding to provide clarification and guidance, Nesbitt said.
Gretzky said her bill will establish rights for residents across all communal care settings, and ensure “safe, meaningful access” to their caregivers. It will also give those facilities the resources they need to ensure safe visits, including adequate infection control and prevention measures and staffing levels, she said.
A legislated provincial caretaker strategy is especially important given rising COVID-19 case counts, she said.
She said she has heard from a mom who, for the past six months, couldn’t communicate with her 14-year-old son, who has a developmental disability and lives in a group home. Her son is nonverbal and only communicates through touch. Visiting through a window, or through a video call, would have been more traumatic for him, she said. He has now regressed and his family is trying to figure out how to support him so he can get back to where he was before the pandemic.
“I’m still hearing stories of homes ... denying residents access to their caregivers at all, in any way, and this is unacceptable,” she said.
She also said it shouldn’t be up to individual homes, or the government, to decide who is an essential caregiver; family members, friends, neighbours or anyone else a resident wants to see should be able to get the designation, she said.
“In my case in long-term care, there has been a lot of deterioration over six months.”
In Question Period Wednesday morning, NDP opposition leader Andrea Horwath asked when the province will address the recommendations outlined in its staffing report, released in July, which includes a call for the ministry to “urgently address the staffing crisis in long-term care” and to ensure residents receive four hours of direct care per day.
Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton said the ministry is “absolutely working around the clock” on the staffing shortage. “It is absolute reality that we are actively, aggressively working on the staffing strategy, and the sense of urgency is absolute, not only for the ministry of long-term care but for this entire government,” she said.
“I want to make sure that everyone understands that these homes are our focus,” Fullerton said, adding the province is pouring all of its resources into the Ottawa long-term care facilities that have declared outbreaks.
Mills said she is also “absolutely concerned” about staffing. Her mom’s home employed students over the summer, she said, but they’re now gone and she isn’t sure who they will be able to hire. She said she’s also worried that long-term care staff are burned out.
“There hasn’t been a whole lot of action within Ontario to up the staffing, or any incentive [to address it],” she said.
“In my case in long-term care, there has been a lot of deterioration over six months. We cannot let this happen again, we cannot isolate those residents again,” Mills said. “We do need caregivers … because when you go into long-term care, you’re not coming out, and if they have their support system, they need that.”