British Columbia

Hugs may be coming soon to seniors in care in Vancouver Coastal Health region

CBC has obtained documents that say residents of long-term care and assisted-living facilities will be able to name a single designated social visitor who will be allowed physical contact and other concessions.

CBC has obtained documents outlining how the health authority plans to loosen restrictions around visitors

A resident is pictured in March 2020 at the Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver, B.C. The facility was the site of B.C.'s first outbreak of COVID-19 in long-term care. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

It might soon be possible to hug and even kiss elderly residents of long-term care homes and seniors' assisted-living facilities in the Vancouver Coastal Health region. 

Documents obtained by CBC show the health authority is set to loosen COVID-19 protocols to allow residents to name one designated social visitor who, along with the physical contact, would also be allowed to bring food and pets into the facilities and take residents away for outings.

An information sheet sent to seniors' facilities from VCH and Providence Health Care outlines the following changes:

  • Social visits permitted in single occupancy resident rooms.
  • Minimum once weekly visitation: 60-90 minute, in single resident room visits are recommended.
  • Brief physical contact may occur.
  • Social visits permitted during the period of admission isolation.
  • Constant supervision of visits is unnecessary.
  • Flowers, food and gifts are approved with safety protocols in place.
  • Pets may be brought in by the social visitor.
  • Same day social and leisure outings with the designated visitor are encouraged.

The documents indicate VCH and Providence had anticipated releasing the guidelines on March 15. 

CBC requested an interview with Vancouver Coastal Health to clarify if and when the new guidelines will be made public. In response, VCH said the Ministry of Health would be responding. 

CBC has also reached out to a number of long term care facilities. All declined comment and referred requests back to VCH. 

A brief sent to facilities on March 11 reads, "We are hoping you will accept and adopt these guidelines in an effort to support residents and their families in visiting while maintaining safety precautions for staff at the facilities both owned and operated by VCH and also private pay facilities."

The documents say new protocols are still contingent on screening and strict safety and hygiene rules being followed.

For instance, when it comes to physical contact, the guidelines state, "embracing, kissing and holding the hand of a resident is allowed provided strict hand hygiene, appropriate respiratory etiquette and mask is worn.

While seniors in residential facilities make up the bulk of COVID-19 deaths in B.C., restrictions on visitors to prevent spread of the virus within facilities has forced a painful level of isolation on many of the elderly residents.

News that visitor restrictions could be loosening was welcomed by Mary-Ellen McSween, whose  97-year-old mother Evelyn lives at the Lynn Valley Care Centre.

"I think it's phenomenal," she said. "It's been heartbreaking to see the decline I've noticed since a year ago."

McSween has been able to visit her mother initially in the care home lobby from behind plexiglass and, more recently, in person as an essential caregiver. 

"It is frustrating, but I understand that they have to change things incrementally," she said.

"I feel like last summer it would have been really beneficial to have a designated visitor to take her outside, to get some fresh air. Last year they were so reliant on the staff and the staff is working to capacity and beyond capacity."

Other details in the documents say:

  • Social contact during outings must be restricted to the resident and their designated social visitor.
  • The resident and their designated social visitor must wear a medical-grade mask provided by the facility and engage in frequent hand hygiene throughout the outing.
  • Examples of outings that meet the safety requirements include, but are not limited to: outdoor walks, drives in private vehicles, hair salon appointments, attendance at a designated social visitor's private residence and at recreational facilities.
  • The resident is not required to self-isolate upon return to the facility for same day social/leisure outings. 

with files from Susana da Silva