Family applauds Manitoba care home visiting pods, but some worry demand could outweigh supply

A 95-year-old man living in Betel Home in Gimli, Man., is pleased with the province's plans to bring outdoor visiting pods to personal care homes, but not everyone is sure there will be enough of the shelters available to meet demand as the temperature drops.

Betel Home resident says visits keep him healthy; Riverview resident fears there won't be enough shelters

Sherry Benson-Podolchuk, right, says the visitor pods at personal care homes will let her see her dad, Harvey Benson, left, when it's cold. (Submitted by Sherry Benson-Podolchuk)

A Manitoba care home resident is pleased with the province's plan to introduce outdoor visiting pods in response to COVID-19, but not everyone is sure the supply of shelters will meet demand as the temperature drops.

Harvey Benson, a resident of Betel Home in Gimli, Man., said the cold-weather pods are a great idea. 

"When you're in a retirement home, it's a lonely thing," said the 95-year-old former school principal. "A lot of people can't talk or visit, and having somebody come visit is great."

The all-season, outdoor shelters, commissioned by the provincial government and produced by PCL Construction, are made from shipping containers.

The province spent $17.9 million on 90 pods, which will be distributed to care homes across Manitoba. Delivery of the first batch is set to start in a few weeks.

Visits to Manitoba personal care homes were suspended for roughly three months this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now that restrictions have loosened, Benson can see both of his daughters again. While he's concerned about the pandemic, he said the visits keep him healthy.

"I get, sometimes, visitors at the window. That was good, but it's kind of nice when you can go into the room and really visit," he said. 

Enough pods to meet demand?

The new shelters are fully insulated, air-conditioned, heated and have separate entrances for residents and their visitors. They also include germicidal UVC lighting to kill bacteria and have space for one resident and up to five visitors.

Shawna Forester Smith said she isn't confident there will be enough of the pods to ensure families can still meet as regularly as they do now. 

"Everybody is going to want to have the pod visits, so the demand is just going to go through the roof," said Forester Smith, who has a chronic illness and lives at Riverview Health Centre in Winnipeg with about 400 other residents.

Shawna Forester Smith lives with a chronic illness at Riverview Health Centre in Winnipeg. (Skype/CBC)

"If you can only have one patient or resident in the pod at a time, how are you going to schedule visits for 400 patients in a week?" she said. "I don't think it's going to be sufficient."

Visitors were welcomed back to Manitoba personal care homes in June, but residents at Riverview are allowed only two designated visitors.

Forester Smith has been able to see her mother and husband in person, but she's had to rely on email, messaging and video-chatting to stay in touch with the rest of her loved ones and family.

The pods can fit one resident and up to five visitors. (Peggy Lam/CBC)

When visits were cut off in March, Forester Smith says residents at Riverview suffered mentally and physically.  Heading into the fall, she's concerned a rise in COVID-19 cases could see those restrictions return.

"If Riverview were to have case of COVID, then yes, they probably have to lockdown and not have visiting for a while," Forester Smith told CBC Information Radio guest host Ify Chiwetelu. 

"But I think if the numbers go up, they should still continue to have visits … happen, because I think that the effects of not having visiting happen are worse than having visitors in the facility."

'Wired for connection'

Meanwhile, Sherry Benson-Podolchuk said she is looking forward to having a pod visit with her father Harvey.

"Now I don't have to worry about bundling up for winter when I visit my dad outside," said Benson-Podolchuk.

Manitoba is sending 90 visitation pods to care homes across the province. (Peggy Lam/CBC)

Outbreaks of COVID-19 at personal care homes in Manitoba continue to grow, with nine declared so far.

A worker at Betel Home where Benson-Podolchuk's father lives tested positive for COVID-19 in April, but the result was ruled to be a false positive days later.

Benson-Podolchuk said the threat of the virus is an unspoken fear among residents.

"They know that if it gets in there it's going to be bad," she said, adding her father has a compromised lung condition and is an avid news listener.  

When his care home restrictions were lifted a few months ago, she said it was nice to be able to bring him tarts, supplies and read the news to him again.

"We're all wired for connection and there's nothing nicer than looking someone in the face.…This is a tremendous opportunity to keep those connections, maintain safety the best that we can … and the quality of life for the clients and the safety of the staff," she said.

"This has certainly shone a light on how much we need to take better care of our senior citizens as they age."

With files from Erin Brohman