Daughter of Parkinson's patient in seniors' home welcomes decision to let family caregivers lend a hand

Until visitors were banned from Maimonides Geriatric Centre a month ago, Harvey Black's family was there to care for the 84-year-old, who has Parkinson's, day in and day out. His daughter is determined to go back.

Until visitors were banned from Maimonides Geriatric Centre, Harvey Black's family were with him every day

Annetta Black, left, is hoping she will be approved to be the primary caregiver for her 84-year-old father, Harvey Black, who has lived at the Maimonides Geriatric Centre in Côte Saint-Luc for the past three years. (Submitted by Annetta Black)

For the past three years, Annetta Black has dropped by the Maimonides Geriatric Centre in Cote Saint-Luc almost daily to help take care of her father, Harvey Black.

She, her brother and mother take turns making sure he is fed, cleaned and especially hydrated — being attached to a catheter means the 84-year-old, who has Parkinson's disease and little autonomy, has chronic urinary tract infections.

The family also hired a private caregiver to ensure their father was almost never on his own. So when Annetta Black was told on March 15 that no more visits would be allowed, in an effort to prevent transmission of COVID-19, she was petrified.

"We've never left him alone; it was like leaving an infant in the care of who-knows," said Black.

Today she is breathing a sigh of relief, after the government announced it will allow some caregivers back into long-term care homes to help out, under certain conditions: One family caregiver will be allowed per patient. That person must be known to the staff at the facility and must have tested negative for COVID-19.

After the controversy around the deaths of 31 people within the span of a few weeks at the CHSLD Herron in Montreal's West Island, the government has backed away from its public health directive banning all visits to seniors' institutions outright.

On Thursday, Health Minister Danielle McCann said 7,000 health-care workers are absent from the long-term care system — many either sick themselves or in isolation because they may have been exposed to the virus.

The government has made successive appeals for help to make up for the staff shortage from retired health-care workers, medical specialists and the military. But it's also recognized that family members and other private caregivers are desperate to help their loved ones in care.

Caregivers to be barred from 'hot' zones

Every public health region has its own criteria for what visitors will be allowed to help out, going forward.

In Montreal, Public Health Director Mylène Drouin said caregivers will not be allowed into facilities that are experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks, unless there is a strict separation between so-called "hot" and "cold" zones — areas where COVID-19 patients are isolated, and areas that are COVID-free.

The priority for now is to introduce the replacement health-care workers as they become available, Drouin said Thursday. Every CHSLD is to contact families and give recommendations according to their situation.

Caregivers who enter CHSLDs will also be required to wear masks and gloves when caring for their close ones, said provincial Public Health Director Horacio Arruda.

'These could be the last weeks of his life'

In order to be allowed to visit her father, Black will have to fill out the application forms, get tested for COVID-19 and be approved to go into Maimonides.

If she is approved, Black will only be allowed to visit her father around lunch and suppertime, she said.

"But it's better than what we have now."

Even though she trusts the staff at the 387-bed residence, she says the institution is now painfully understaffed.

"We want it to be us that's caring for him because these could be the last weeks of his life for all we know," Black said.

'Good news': union rep

Jeff Begley, the president of the CSN's federation of health and social services, whose union represents patient attendants (préposés aux béneficaires) and other health-care workers, says his members welcome the decision to allow in family caregivers.

He says not only will this ease the workload for staff, but it will help with the psychological burden of not being able to do enough for patients.

"People who work in long-term care settings and don't have enough staff, oftentimes ... we go home and we feel guilty," Begley said. "We aren't able to do everything we want to do."

Without enough staff, tasks such as cleaning and feeding patients need to be done more quickly, he said — at the expense of the quality of care.

The government has temporarily increased wages of the patient attendants that Begley's union represents by eight per cent, and by $4 an hour for people in private long-term care institutions, who often earn little more than minimum wage.

Quebec Premier François Legault said Thursday the government will work to increase wages for orderlies and recruit more people to work in CHSLDs after the COVID-19 crisis.

For now, he said, the priority remains getting staffing levels back up to where they should be.

Some 2,000 medical specialists have responded to the premier's call "to do their duty," he said Thursday.

"The situation in hospitals is stable and under control," Legault said. "We're concentrating our efforts on nursing homes, where the situation is critical."

With files from Valeria Cori-Manocchio

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