After over a year spent separated from loved ones and confined in their rooms, long-term-care residents are finally free to reunite with family outdoors.
The new guidelines announced by the province Friday allow residents to meet outdoors with up to two general visitors, including members of different households, starting Saturday. They can also meet with two essential caregivers, for a total group size of up to five people. Children under the age of two do not count toward the general visitor maximum.
The change, which comes as COVID case numbers drop in Ontario, means Esther Hladkowicz can meet with her dad — without the barrier of a glass window — for the first time in 10 months. Granddaughter Emily will be there too. The women will drive to Carlingview Manor, a long-term-care home in Ottawa where 90-year-old Heinz Ziebell lives to see him outdoors at 10 a.m. — the first possible visitation opening.
“I am ecstatic about visiting, but now, we have to have as much time as possible for whatever is left (of his life),” Hladkowicz said.
Ziebell’s dementia has deteriorated due to the isolation he faced during the pandemic, as has his physical and mental health. Now that he can be around family more often, Hladkowicz predicts she will see improvements in his cognition and social and verbal skills.
But she’s tempering her expectations; what if a COVID-19 outbreak is declared ahead of the visit? What if there’s a thunderstorm? The weather forecast in Ottawa for Saturday calls for heavy rain.
“As families of long-term-care residents and as advocates, we’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Hladkowicz said. “I’m happy … but it’s a bittersweet feeling. I know so many people who can’t do what we’re doing … because their homes are in outbreak.”
Visitors are permitted to meet residents outdoors provided the resident is not symptomatic or isolating under droplet and contact precautions, said Ministry of Long-term Care spokesperson Macey Aramburo.
“This means that where a portion of the home is in outbreak, residents unaffected by that outbreak may still have outdoor visits,” Aramburo added.
The change to visitation is in line with the provincial reopening plan which will see outdoor recreational amenities like golf courses, soccer and other sports fields and courts open with a limit of five people beginning Saturday.
“I think this is going to be a huge opportunity for people to finally restore some of the dignity and quality of life, especially for residents living in our long-term-care homes,” said Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. While he “welcomes” the change, he said it’s “long overdue.”
“The number one issue that families have been clamouring for, and the one thing that I really wish the government would have moved on a number of weeks ago was allowing for outdoor visits to occur,” he said. “This was really the window that allowed us to give families and residents what they desperately wanted, just an opportunity to actually visit their loved ones, even as an outdoor visit, which is incredibly safe.”
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As of Friday, 96 per cent of residents and 53 per cent of long-term-care staff were fully vaccinated, with 87 per cent of staff having received at least one jab, according to the ministry. As well, 99 per cent of essential caregivers — often family members who are allowed in long-term-care homes — have had their first dose.
Just 34 out of the 626 long-term-care homes in the province are in outbreak; the “vast majority” recording under five cases, Sinha said.
“We’re often talking about very mild cases, indeed, we’ve had very few deaths that have occurred since the third wave began, because residents have largely been fully vaccinated as of mid-to-late February,” he added.
The Ministry of Long-Term Care said in a memo Friday that changes are also being made to reopen outdoor recreational amenities and to permit organized public events.
“To enable this change, homes will need to rapidly reintroduce their plans and processes to support outdoor visits,” wrote Associate Deputy Minister Erin Hannah in the memo. “I know you have been planning for this already with the onset of spring and the warmer weather and the impassioned calls from residents and their families to enable them to see one another outside.”
Vivian Stamatopoulos, an associate professor at Ontario Tech University and a long-term-care advocate and researcher, said some managers were unprepared to make the changes ahead of the long weekend.
“These homes were bamboozled. There wasn’t enough time. A lot of these managers have already left (work) … there goes the long weekend for these families,” Stamatopoulos said.
The other issue she says, is understaffing. To accommodate these visits, homes will need additional funding to hire volunteers and employees to supervise visits. She added that while families are “grateful for anything,” limiting residents to just two general visitors is inadequate.
“That doesn’t seem like enough. I’m sure they can accommodate more,” she said. “When we look at the model in place in Alberta … the approach is better.”
On May 10, Alberta loosened COVID-19 restrictions in long-term-care homes, allowing each resident to designate up to four friends or family members as indoor visitors, and expanded outdoor gatherings up to 10 people.
General visitors need to be actively screened upon arrival. They will be required to wear masks and maintain physical distancing from residents and caregivers as well as other groups.
Maria Sarrouh is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach her via email: [email protected]
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