Dr. Deena Hinshaw holds teleconferences to gather feedback on care facility visitor policy

In the first of three such calls, Dr. Deena Hinshaw fielded questions from care facility operators, residents and their family members.

She says many Albertans believe human connection vital to their loved ones' health

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, is hosting three telephone town halls in two days to get feedback from Albertans affected by visitor guidelines at care facilities. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, held the first of a series of telephone town halls Tuesday to gain insight from families, residents and operators on the visitor rules for Alberta's care facilities.

Her goal is to use that feedback as consideration within Alberta Health before the release of an updated visitor policy later this summer.

"There's no one way forward that will perfectly solve all of our problems, but we do know that that human connection has been absent for many people and it has been impacting their health," said Hinshaw during the call.

In Tuesday's call, Hinshaw shared that the majority (62 per cent) of the participants who have registered for these calls, "think that the need for human connection is great enough that we need to consider revising current guidelines."

The other 38 per cent of respondents indicated that, "protecting residents should remain the priority even if it limits opportunities for human connection."

Several questions posed brought up the idea of physical touch being an important component of overall care, including for people living with dementia and with other complex needs.

To that, Hinshaw responded that she agreed with this but that individual risk must be weighed against collective risk and that there are a lot of factors to consider.

"What we're hearing from these questions … is that this opportunity for people to be able to be close to their loved ones is absolutely a critical part of their well-being and we need to figure out a way to work that into our framework," said Hinshaw.

Other questions were focused on the designation and role of essential visitors. One question was focused on whether essential visitors needed to still be present while other guests visited.

"We are looking at options that would facilitate more visitors, whether that's just two at a time but not needing the essential visitor or other options," said Hinshaw. 

Other topics discussed included care facility autonomy in decision-making during the pandemic; the potential for differentiation in rules between seniors' care facilities and youth group homes; and relaxing visitor restrictions.

These town hall discussions will continue by phone Tuesday evening at 6 p.m. and Wednesday at 1 p.m.

Shelbey and Larry Benoit have been married for 52 years but have rarely seen each other during the past few months due to visitor restrictions at care homes. (Frances Yurchevich)

Personal Experience

Larry Benoit and his wife Shelbey, who lives at the Tudor Manor in Okotoks, have been married 52 years.

Larry has seen Shelbey twice since March 13, and for just 15-minutes at a time.

Their son and three grandchildren also visit Shelbey, so they must take turns seeing her every other week, and there can only be three people in each visit.

It's kind of like jail.- Larry Benoit

"We're all getting bushed … all [Shelbey] wants to do is just come home for a day, watch TV with me. Just be by ourselves. I'll cook her supper and we'll go to bed," said Larry on the Calgary Eyeopener.

"I used to go everyday … before the virus came around. I was free to go see her. But then when you take that away and you shut the doors, well it's kind of like jail."

Repeated frustrations

Frustrations like Larry's are being heard often, says Janice Harrington, Alberta's Health Advocate.

The office of the health advocate helps deal with patient experience and monitor patients' rights. It also helps those who call to navigate the health-care system and connect them to resources as well as identify systemic issues.

Harrington says her office has been busy in the past few months fielding calls about visitor policies at long-term health facilities.

She says her office has seen a 30 per cent increase in calls since the start of the pandemic and that 50 per cent of those calls relate to family concerns over visitations.

Janice Harrington, Alberta's Health Advocate, says she's been hearing about the frustrations of care home staff, residents and their families. (Health Advocate website)

"There's a number of things that have been brought to our attention. Largely it's been about access … its a lack of ability for family members to go in and see their family members and participate in their care," Harrington told the Eyeopener.

Care home staff have had to get creative, says Harrington. She's seen some bringing in technology to help facilitate calls between residents and their families. She's also seen a facility set up areas in their parkade for people to safely visit.

Harrington says there's also a heavy toll for the staff who work at these facilities.

"They are heartbroken over the situations … they truly care about what's going on. And they're really struggling to try to figure out what's the best thing to do," she said.

Both Harrington and Hinshaw pointed out that residents do have the right to leave their care home, but that they would have to isolate themselves before they return. They would also have to follow care facility-specific regulations, so that makes things complicated.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.


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