Seniors' facility fears prompt Alberta woman to bring her elderly mother home

Karen Patching, 68, says it's been an adjustment bringing her 93-year-old mother home to live with her in Lethbridge, Alta., but she felt it was the only safe option.

Lethbridge woman says she believes her mom is safer at home based on her experience getting the flu last year

Isabella Oppen, 93, was living at AgeCare Columbia retirement and supportive living facility in Lethbridge, Alta., on the retirement side, intended for more independent residents. (Karen Patching)

Karen Patching said it's been an adjustment bringing her 93-year-old mother into her home, but she felt it was a necessity — worried about leaving her mom in the care of a seniors' home, based on her mom's experience at that home while she was sick with the flu last year.

"If she got sick, she would die alone, she wouldn't get the care and the treatment she deserves and I wouldn't be able to help her, I couldn't live with that," said Patching, 68.

Patching moved her mom out of AgeCare Columbia, a retirement and supportive living facility in Lethbridge, Alta., on March 17.

AgeCare Columbia has no confirmed cases of COVID-19, and as of publication there were six reported cases of COVID-19 in Lethbridge, and no deaths.

But Patching said she is confident she made the right decision after watching staff and residents at the McKenzie Towne Continuing Care Centre in Calgary battle an outbreak of COVID-19.

There, some family members of residents said they don't feel the facility is taking proper precautions.

"I thought, 'oh my God', that is exactly, that is exactly our scenario, that's exactly what's happened here, ill prepared, not heeding the instructions that the rest of us were all given in a timely manner," said Patching.

In a statement, a spokesperson for AgeCare Columbia said the company is following the guidelines set out by Alberta Health Services and said it can not comment on Patching's mother's specific situation.

The home also sent a copy of an inspection report done by Alberta Health Services on Thursday, which said it had no concerns related to AgeCare's COVID-19 preparedness.

Patching said she moved her mom, Isabella, into AgeCare Columbia nearly five years ago after interviewing several places. At the time, in July 2015, the facility was called Columbia Assisted Living.

Patching said that when her mom moved in, they were told in-house staff checked in on residents regularly and provided some help as needed. Patching said for the first couple of years the care was excellent — she said her mom got the occasional hug, afternoon door knocks with juice and cookies, and staff notified Patching if her mom was feeling lonely.

But a couple of years ago management changed and residents were split up — those who are more independent were moved to one part of the building, and those who need more care to another.

Patching said her mom stayed where she was, which was the redesignated, independent side.

"She's absolutely amazing, she's bright and positive, she has some mobility issues and some minor cognitive issues," said Patching.

Staff stopped doing health checks, daughter says

Patching said she hadn't realized that as these changes were happening staff had stopped doing health checks, until her mom came down with a severe case of influenza A last December while Patching was out of town.

When Patching returned home she said she discovered her mom had been suffering in her room for three days, dehydrated and hungry, too sick to go down for meals. 

She said when she complained, she was told that management and the head of staff weren't aware of her mom's situation.

But Patching said staff were coming in to give her mom blood pressure medication twice a day, a service she paid for,  so she said she knew staff were aware, but she said no one bothered to bring her mother meals, or notify Patching.

"When I brought it up with the management there, they said 'well that's not our responsibility anymore,'" said Patching.

"It was an absolute shock to me."

After Patching's mom got the flu, she said she started calling home care services to check on her mother when she goes out of town.

The company said it cannot comment on this specific situation, but told CBC News that if a resident doesn't notify staff  they are not coming to the meal, a member of the team goes and checks in.

AgeCare noted that in the past there was confusion about the level of care provided on the independent side because some of the supportive living residents were mixed in. But the company said that confusion been rectified and now only those on the supportive living side receive care from AgeCare staff.

The company also said staff were never directed to check in on Patching's mother and other independent residents. It said it's not marketed in its materials nor part of its residential agreements.

Resident asks for checks to resume

CBC News also spoke to a current resident of the Lethbridge care centre, Ruth Richardson, a former neighbour of Isabella's.

The 84-year-old said she believes the facility has made changes with safety in mind, moving dining tables apart and instituting new routines for residents.

She said only two people are seated at a table at dinner, and otherwise she stays in her home except for when she goes for her dialysis treatments. 

"They're trying the best as they can," she said. 

Richardson said the facility has a staffed front desk from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., has instituted a no visitors policy, and is checking everyone who comes and goes.

"We can't have any visitors and when we come in you have to sanitize your hands. They don't take our temperature or anything," she said, "They just keep telling us to sanitize, sanitize."

'It is tough, really tough'

Richardson added that she has not been provided with any wipes or sanitizer for her room but that it has been available in the building's common areas.

"I mean they're trying," she said. "It is tough, really tough."

Richardson said no one checks on her if she misses a meal — as AgeCare suggested.

And she, too, said when she first moved in, about three-and-a-half years ago, staff used to drop by and ask if she was coming to lunch or to just see how she was doing.

"And it was just stopped all of a sudden and we were never notified," said Richardson.

Since then she said she's been asking if staff could resume checking in on the independent residents. She said she worries about falling and not receiving help in a timely manner.

"They said, 'oh, well you could get to the phone,' but I couldn't get to the phone because I've had knee surgery and I couldn't even crawl on my knees," said Richardson.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the company said all care staff on site are designated for provincially funded, supportive living residents, not retirement living residents because it is meant for independent seniors.

It said retirement living includes meals, activities, and housekeeping. And that retirement residents can receive home care through AHS but it is not provided by AgeCare.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit Calgary, Patching said she worried about what would happen to her mother if she contracted the virus.

Patching said she asked at a resident's meeting on March 11 about the level of care her mother would receive if she fell ill.

In response, she said she was told that those on the independent side would have to get the supplies they needed, to self isolate, and to call for help, using a call button, if they felt sick and needed help. 

"They were deemed to be 'sufficiently aware people' that they could do this on their own," said Patching.

AgeCare said it couldn't confirm what was said to Patching at that meeting.

Seniors advocate Ruth Adria says there's a reason why people leave their homes and everything they know behind to move into a facility — they need care. (Submitted by Ruth Adria)

Ruth Adria, co-founder Elder Advocates of Alberta Society, said if people are sick, they may not be able to reach out for help.

"It tells you the disregard that is shown to these people, it is not reasonable," said Adria.

"They need care and that's why they are there and the reality is in all levels of care it's not happening."

Worry about lack of preparedness for COVID-19

Patching said she also worried about what she believed to be a lack of preparedness that she observed before her mom moved out on March 17.

Patching said sometime after an all-residents meeting on March 11 she called head office and was told that staff in the Lethbridge facility didn't have essential supplies such as hand sanitizer or a digital thermometer.

In response to CBC News' inquiries, AgeCare said it has enough supplies and distributes them as per AHS protocols.

AgeCare also said enough personal protective equipment for staff and residents — and it is following AHS' direction on appropriate use. It said if residents contract the virus, staff will deliver meals to their door.

Patching was also concerned about the number of external home care workers coming and going because of the risk they bring to residents and staff.

She also said residents were still eating all together in the dining room despite concerns already being raised about  the potential risk of spreading the coronavirus among large gatherings.

AgeCare said effective March 26, or a few days earlier, residents sit two to a table, and there are two sitting times per meal.

Patching said she didn't feel staff were doing enough to monitor visitors, and said no one asked her directly about whether she had symptoms, took her temperature or asked about travel. But she did have to fill out a questionnaire.

AgeCare said it followed visitor screening protocols from AHS when it received them. It said initial visitor screening was added to its visitor sign-in logs on March 11. Additional visitor restrictions and measures were put into place two days  later, banning anyone from visiting if they'd travelled out of the country or had flu-like symptoms.

On its website, the company said further restrictions were enacted March 20. It said only one visitor, who is attending to a resident who is dying, is allowed into its AgeCare communities.

Patching believes these more stringent steps should have been implemented earlier.

"They are trying to do things now but they are doing everything late … that's blown up in the face of seniors' homes all over Canada — doing things late — and it shouldn't be happening," said Patching.

Home is best, daughter says

Patching said it's taken two weeks to get her mom settled in at her own home, but said she seems to be in good spirits.

It's really not an ideal situation. Patching had plans to travel and her mom wanted to live independently.

But Patching said her mom will stay in her home for the time being.

"I can't see putting my mother back in a situation that exists right now," Patching said. "My mother deserves dignity and respect and a safe place to live."

Patching hopes care homes will make changes to improve safety for future outbreaks.

And with respect to AgeCare Columbia specifically, Patching would like to see better communication between staff and residents' families.

She said she's sent a letter to Alberta Health Services and the health minister about her concerns related to her mother's former care home.


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