After couple tests positive for COVID-19 in long-term care, husband dies on wedding anniversary

Betty and Norman Wilson, who had known each other for decades before getting married in their 80s, recently contracted COVID-19 while living at the Manoir West Island. Last week, Norman passed away on the couple's ninth wedding anniversary.

'She was devastated, heartbroken; she lost the love of her life,' says widow's daughter

Norman and Betty Wilson married on Dec. 3, 2011. Norman Wilson died of COVID-19 exactly nine years later. His family wants the government to do more to improve long-term care. (Submitted by Bill and Dorothy Wilson)

The thing with long-term care homes is they are filled with stories, and lifetimes spent weaving them. 

Betty and Norman Wilson's story began Dec. 3 nine years ago when they married, after having known each other for decades already.

They were both in their 80s and both had been their late spouse's primary caregiver for years.

They had another strong link: Norman's son, Bill Wilson, and Betty's daughter, Dorothy Wilson, are married and have been for 45 years.

Betty was an organist for 43 years at her local Anglican church and taught preschool children. Norman was an electrical engineer in the aviation industry.

Out of their grief came love and Norman proposed to Betty one day in her apartment, giving her a week to make her decision. When he came back, he pulled out the ring from under her couch, where he'd hidden it the week before.

"They laughed and they smiled, and they went out and they ate," Bill said. "He took care of things. He was that kind of man. He would look after things. So, their time together was really rather magical."

The day of the elder Wilsons' wedding anniversary this year is also the day their story together ended, when Norman died of COVID-19 last Thursday. He was 93. His wife is 94.

The couple tested positive days earlier as an outbreak swept through the Manoir West Island in Pierrefonds, the long-term care home they'd lived in for the past 10 months.

"She was devastated, heartbroken; she lost the love of her life," Dorothy said. "She faces that reality every time she looks at that empty bed."

For much of this fall, it seemed the second wave that was gripping the province and driving up daily COVID-19 case numbers well beyond those of the spring, had mostly spared long-term care. 

But as community spread grew, the virus found its way back, undeterred by stricter measures implemented in the homes since the first wave. 

WATCH | Bill and Dorothy Wilson describe how Norman's 94-year-old widow is coping with her husband's death

Norman and Betty Wilson's love story began 9 years ago and ended on their anniversary this year.

CBC News Montreal

5 months ago
Norman Wilson died after he caught COVID-19 in the long-term care home where he and his wife Betty lived. Outbreaks in long-term care in Quebec are growing as the homes await vaccines. 0:50

The number of cases at the Manoir, which has fewer than 100 beds, has nearly doubled in two weeks. Twelve residents, including Norman Wilson, have died.

The Wilsons shared a room where they were confined together. A red cross marked the door to indicate their positive test results.

When CBC first spoke to Betty Wilson last week, she was worried about Norman's worsening condition.

"I feel all right. It's just, I'm worried about my husband because he's not hungry and he doesn't want to eat very much, and I'm having quite a time trying to get him to eat," Wilson had said over the phone.

Her daughter recognized something else in her concerned phone calls. 

"She feels alone and she feels abandoned," Dorothy said. The home's already small staff seemed stretched to its limit, with many out sick, too. 

Betty described having to ask multiple staff members and wait a significant amount of time for help to go to the bathroom.

"My legs are not very strong, having had polio when I was young," she explained.

When she pulled the cord for assistance the evening before Norman died in the night, she waited so long she called Bill and Dorothy to assuage her anxiety in the meantime.

Bill and Dorothy Wilson have been married for 45 years. His father and her mother fell in love and married in their 80s. Norman Wilson, 93, died last Thursday after contracting COVID-19 in the long-term care home the couple lived in. (Matt D'Amours/CBC)

The couple knows Betty isn't alone in feeling alone. They see her ordeal as symbolic of the neglect of seniors in long-term care and are calling on the provincial and federal governments to fix it.

Last week, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland announced $1 billion in funding for long-term care, but the Wilsons fear even that is not enough for a system that has been deteriorating for decades.

"You get tired of talk, you get tired of words," Bill Wilson said. "They might fix it when we get to 94, but it's too late for our parents. We've had to suffer this stress. Hundreds of families have had to suffer this stress."

Bill and Dorothy know their family's story and heartbreak isn't singular, that behind all the lists of numbers of deaths and cases in long-term care homes are more like theirs. 

Beyond the numbers

Gladys Chan has been keeping a close eye on those numbers — such a close eye that she noticed the Manoir changed its total number of beds in its tally last week.

Her 88-year-old father is another resident at the home. 

Chan believes the home and the government's way of presenting statistics in long-term care homes is misleading. She also recognizes the attention she pays to this is a way of coping.

Her father's transition into long-term care from his own apartment, and subsequent health problems, have been difficult. 

Wednesday, he, too, tested positive for COVID-19. 

Cases more than doubled in one week at Manoir West Island in Pierrefonds, where nearly 60 per cent residents now have COVID-19 and 12 have died. (CBC)

"He loved his independence," Chan said. "He stopped cycling when he was 80 years old.… He was literally in his 70s and lived near the Henri-Bourassa Metro station and you'd find him in Lachine."

When he could no longer carry his bicycle into his apartment, Chan's father began walking. He would walk all the way downtown and into Chinatown, she said. 

And when it became harder to walk that far, he would take public transit, urging family members to meet him different places for walks.

That independence has carried her father throughout his life, Chan said. Arriving in Canada from China alone at 17, he became a waiter and supported his four children through their studies.

"He put all his heart into providing for his kids, for them to have a better life, and [we] do," she said.

Her father's COVID-19 diagnosis did not come as a shock. The lack of communication from the Manoir's management on how the situation has been progressing is at the heart of Chan's dismay. 

"We're kind of numb to it. It's been two weeks of checking the stats, the reports because we just weren't getting a lot of information," she said. 

The wait for the vaccine

The first vaccines against the virus in the province are expected to be distributed in two long-term care homes in Quebec City and Montreal, and the government hopes most residents in the facilities will have received their first shot in early 2021.

"We can't determine when things happen. We can only hope that in the future it will prevent more deaths and more people being ill," Chan said. 

"I can't get angry at a situation that is beyond anyone's control. When I think of my father now having COVID, I have no choice but to accept it, even though I have questions."