'Heart-wrenching': How families cope with COVID-19 outbreaks at Hamilton care homes

COVID-19 has left families fretting at home while the number of cases rises and their loved ones sit isolated in their rooms at long-term care and retirement homes.

'You just want to be able to give her a hug and say 'Mum, it's going to be OK.''

Barb Vogt blows a kiss through the window at Heritage Green Nursing Home in Stoney Creek. Her daughter Shirley Wetherup said being separated for weeks by COVID-19 has been hard on the family. (Shirley Wetherup/Facebook)

They call her "The Angel."

Barb Vogt is 84 and lives with Parkinson's. She loves to zip around Heritage Green Nursing Home in Stoney Creek on her scooter, cheering up other residents and keeping them company.

Now COVID-19 has clipped her wings.

"She's just always looking after other people and now that she can't get out of her room … it's killing her," Shirley Wetherup said of her mother.

Over at The Cardinal Retirement Residence, Joanne Pearson's mother Den is visited by "Martians" three times a day — staff members kitted out in gowns and masks to deliver her meals.

Pearson calls and tries to visit every day too, running around to the back of the building to knock on her mom's window and smile. Her mom seems to be in good spirits, but it's been tough.

"[COVID-19] is especially frightening for … long-term care and retirement homes," she said. "Is there anxiety? Absolutely. But unfortunately there's not much anybody can do about it at this point in time except try to keep them safe."

The women live at the two long term care homes in Hamilton hardest-hit by COVID-19 outbreaks.

Their circumstances speak to the strain the pandemic has put on families who fret at home while their loved ones sit isolated in their rooms, separated by a virus that's sickened dozens of seniors and killed 16 in the city so far. Ten of those deaths have happened in these two homes.

It's left their children with a feeling of rising concern and searching for a ways to stay connected with the family members they've been forced to stay away from.

Suddenly something as unremarkable as a having a room on the first floor has taken on a new significance.

Separated by a sheet of glass

Pearson and Wetherup consider themselves fortunate. At least they can still see their loved ones and visit with them every day through the window.

But the thin layer of glass standing between them somehow makes the situation feel even more helpless.

Wetherup says she longs to take her mom to meet her newest great-grandson, visit the squirrels at Valley Park again or drive down to Hutch's for fish and chips.

Public health officials say fear about working at a facility with a COVID-19 outbreak has caused staffing issues at Hamilton long-term care and retirement homes, including The Cardinal Retirement Residence. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Right now, all she can do is wave through the window and worry.

"You just want to be able to give her a hug and say 'Mum, it's going to be OK. everything is going to be OK,'" she said, fighting back tears.

Her mother is a strong woman who's survived health issues in the past that should have killed her, but handling isolation has been a struggle and she's not sure what will happen this time.

"It's just heart-wrenching thinking 'Is this what's actually going to take her out?'"

Staff shortages and resident safety

Six residents have died of the virus at Cardinal and four at Heritage Green so far, according to public health officials.

The homes also have 45 and 12 residents who have tested positive for the virus respectively, along with three staff members at Heritage Green and 17 at Cardinal.

The majority of staff at Cardinal left the home after cases started being confirmed there, reportedly leaving just three people — including managers — to operate the facility that can house up to 86 residents.

It's a situation described as "insane" by Miranda Ferrier, president of the Ontario Personal Support Workers Association.

"They were so short staffed that the owner actually delivered meals to my mom a couple of times," said Pearson.

The Herkimer Street home was also cited for 10 violations of the Retirement Homes Act during its most-recent inspection in December by the Retirement Homes Regulatory Authority.

Still, Pearson said she doesn't judge the staff members who left and said those infractions happened before the current owner took over.

Joanne Pearson, shared this photo her mother Den, centre, son, Jonas and daughter Jaana taken a few years before she moved into The Cardinal Retirement Residence. Despite challenges at the home caused by COVID-19, Pearson said she feels her mom is safe and secure there. (Submitted by Joanne Pearson)

She remains pleased overall with the care her mother is getting.

The manager of the home has regularly updated families, she added, and her mother lives in a room at the end of a hall that doesn't get a lot of traffic. She's also been tested for COVID-19 and the results came back negative.

"I really don't have any complaints and neither does she. They've done all that they can to keep her safe," said Pearson.

"I think she's safer there than she would be anywhere else if she was in the community."

A battle between brain and heart

Wetherup used to volunteer at Heritage Green and was also complimentary of the staff there.

When the first cases of COVID-19 appeared at the home the union representing staff raised concerns about access to personal protective equipment, saying not enough was being done to keep their workers safe.

It's a concern Wetherup understands better than most. She was asked if she could continue to help out at the home, but had to say no at the urging of her mother and daughters because she's a cancer survivor who still deals with lung damage.

Not being able to lend a hand has left her feeling even more powerless. And yet, she continues to have faith in those who are continuing to work at the home.

"Honestly I'm glad she is where she is. They always have done the best they can with what they've got."

Cases of novel coronavirus at the home have been contained to a wing on the second floor so far, said Pearson. But her family questions whether it will spread to other floors.

At one point that fear made her consider taking her mom home with her, but ultimately decided that might make her even more lonely.

Signs are placed outside Heritage Green Nursing Home where four residents have died of COVID-19. (Supplied by family of Heritage Green resident)

"My heart wants to bring her out and help her, but the brain kicks in and it's not the best thing for her," Pearson explained. "She is in the best place for her."

Both women say the one thing they hope for after COVID-19 fades away is that people don't forget what the virus has revealed — care homes are in desperate need of support.

"Every level of government has had their eyes opened up to what kind of help these people need," said Wetherup.

Until that day they'll keep waving through the window and waiting for that first hug.