Long-term care homes grapple with mental health of seniors during pandemic isolation

Isolation can be deadly, too

Long-term care and assisted living facilities in B.C. are facing an increasingly deadly second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks, while at the same time imposing restrictions that leave seniors increasingly isolated.

And the province’s seniors’ advocate Isobel Mackenzie says the government needs to overhaul the measures put in place in the pandemic’s early weeks and ease restrictions on visitors that are depriving residents of essential care and time with loved ones, and which could be costing more lives than they are saving.

Mackenzie said this will be the last holiday season for about a quarter of residents, and the province needs to do everything in its power to support meaningful connection between residents and their families.

“I don’t think it was ever intended that  these measures would be in place for as long as they have been. I think  it was intended to give care operators the opportunity to figure out how  to manage these visits,” she said. “And we just got stuck in how we  started out the visits in July, with how we’re doing the visits now, in  December. We just need to shift that.”

But after 10 months, the restrictions have devastated the physical and mental health of residents and failed to prevent outbreaks as community cases increase.

“The challenge that we are facing right  now, is that this surge in our communities has dramatically increased  the risk in long-term care,” said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie  Henry on Wednesday. 

But earlier in the week Henry noted visitors are not causing outbreaks, which are more often caused by staff  unknowingly spreading the virus.

Mackenzie said health officials should  allow more frequent and longer visits with the designated visitors rather than increase the number of visitors per resident.

"Increasing the frequency of visits, allowing their visits to happen in the privacy of the residence  room, that’s not going to significantly increase the risk at all, and arguably could be decreasing the risk, because the care home is going to  be able to rely on those family members to provide some help.”

Visitors also need to be screened and escorted to the space, rather than finding their way to the residents’ rooms.

“Irrespective of how meaningful visitors’  increased presence will be for the resident, their increased presence is  going to help us as well,” said Mackenzie. “There’s going to be an  extra pair of hands there to help with the feeding, to help with the toilet, to help with things that some of them were helping with before the pandemic.”

Research co-conducted by Farinaz Havaei at UBC’s school of nursing found that during the pandemic’s first wave  residents’ direct nursing care plummeted by about 10 hours per month as facilities scrambled to control the virus.

“If you think about the mental health implications of all of that (stress), and how that influences staff’s work behaviours and decisions when giving care, you can see that the  implications are really huge,” said Havaei.

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