New Brunswick

Researcher studies 'heartbreaking' effects of seniors' isolation during pandemic

A professor at the Université de Moncton is looking at the effects of the pandemic on families who were separated from loved ones in nursing homes. Suzanne Dupuis-Blanchard is also looking at the impact on seniors who were isolated in their own homes during the lock-down.

Suzanne Dupuis-Blanchard hopes to deliver valuable lessons for 'next time'

Greg and Carol Loosley have been married for 53 years. They haven't held hands since March (Submitted by Kelly McMillan)

When Carol Loosley's multiple sclerosis became too much to manage at home, her family made the difficult decision to move her into a nursing home in Sussex. 

But after nearly 50 years of marriage, her husband Greg wanted to make sure he wasn't far away. So he moved into the adjacent apartment building at the same time. Their front doors are about 25 metres apart. 

They saw each other every day. Most days, he would bring her to his apartment for a visit and a change of scenery. Often, she would stay for supper. 

They made the best out of the situation. 

And then COVID-19 hit. 

"I haven't held my wife's hand since March," said Loosley. 

For months, window visits were the only way that loved ones could spend any time with residents of nursing homes. For many, it wasn't enough. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

"The schools are open, the hospitals are open and New Brunswick has invited people in from Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, PEI, now parts of Quebec … and yet I cannot get in to see my wife any more than 45 minutes every five days."

He said he's frustrated the government is letting so many strangers into the province, but still won't allow people to help care for loved ones in nursing homes. 

"It just seems like they're treating a nursing home a whole lot different," said Loosley.

Even as MS ravaged her body, Loosley says his wife never got depressed. 

She is now.

"She's sort of begging me to bring her home. 'Let's try it again. Can you look after me?'"

It breaks his heart to hear her ask, but he knows that she could never get the care she needs at home. 

"I feel sick about it for my wife because she's upset," he said. 

"I'm battling for my wife and it's not going to stop. I do feel it's inhumane and there's a grave injustice. And my wife is paying a big, big price for this, because it's so not like her. I mean, she's discouraged, she wants to come home. She knows she can't, but she wants to." 

Kelly McMillan said it's been heart-breaking to watch her parents separated. 

"We all need human contact with our family and friends, and it has been since March that my mom has had a hug, kiss from my dad, or any kind of contact." 

A common story

The Loosleys aren't alone. 

Families all across New Brunswick are in similar situations because of COVID-19 restrictions. 

As the lockdown dragged on through March and April, families had to get creative in order to spend time with loved ones. 

For those in nursing homes, it meant window visits or FaceTime. 

While better than nothing, pixels on a screen were a poor substitute for hugs. And not everyone could get to a window or communicate electronically, says Suzanne Dupuis-Blanchard, a professor and research chair in population aging at the Université de Moncton. 

Dupuis-Blanchard knew that seniors would be greatly impacted by the social isolation created by restrictions designed to stop the spread of COVID-19, and she's now looking at just how they've been affected.

Suzanne Dupuis-Blanchard hopes her research will help governments and care homes adapt their policies for a second wave of COVID-19 or a similar future crisis. (Submitted by Suzanne Dupuis-Blanchard)

"Our research will assess the short-term impact of this situation," she explained. "And then return to these participants in six months' time to explore the longer-term impact."

The goal of the research project is to document the lessons learned so that improvements can be made for the anticipated second wave or a similar health crisis in the future, said Dupuis-Blanchard. 

"The main driver is to be able to inform stakeholders — not only government but long-term care facilities — about what worked and maybe did not work, so that we can plan for the future."

She said it's also important to "validate the experience of what these people have been through." She said it  "goes a long way to help people cope with this."

Dupuis-Blanchard is one of several New Brunswick researchers to receive money for COVID-19-related projects.

In March, the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation, in partnership with the New Brunswick Health Research Foundation (NBHRF), launched a COVID-19 Research Fund and invited researchers to apply. 

For many, this will be their last summer. Their last year. Their last few days.- Nursing home worker

They received 60 applications and requests for $2.3 million in funding, which was more money than they had available. 

That's when the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) stepped in to provide more funding. In total, 27 projects across the province have been approved — to the tune of $846,707.

Dupuis-Blanchard said the project targeted two distinct groups — the family members of people living in nursing homes and seniors who were living in their own homes but separated from family.

The interviews with the first group have already been completed. 

Dupuis-Blanchard said it's important to remember that they were conducted during the height of the lockdown, when family members were still not allowed in-person visits. 

She said it was easy to get people to talk about their separation experience. 

"We had a really good and quick response, because they really needed to talk."

The overall message was concern for their loved ones and some guilt at not being able to pitch in to help. 

The Tabusintac Nursing Home pasted a message to friends and family of residents in its windows at the beginning of the lockdown. (Tabusintac Nursing Home/Facebook)

"They know the reality that existed before COVID-19 in nursing homes ... So that's just been amplified because of the pandemic," said Dupuis-Blanchard. 

Families understand that staff cannot do everything for every resident, said Dupuis-Blanchard, and so they helped with meals and walks and other daily activities.

"But now that's no longer happening. So they're starting to worry about being dependent on staff, and does the staff have enough time, enough hands on board to provide adequate care?"

 She said families have found it difficult to stay away. Communicating with the use of smartphones or other devices didn't work in situations where the person in care wasn't physically or mentally able to make use of the devices. 

For those with dementia, it was difficult for loved ones to explain why they hadn't been around. 

"Every call, or every contact, starts again with an explanation of why they can't be there. 

"Not being able to touch and to help, and to take those walks and those sharing stories that usually happens — eventually it starts to take a toll. And they've been very clear with that."

Seniors isolated at home

The second group targeted in Dupuis-Blanchard's study is seniors living at home. 

They, too, suffered social isolation as family "bubbles," as they became known, were restricted to the people living under one roof. 

And while care continued for seniors in nursing homes, many of the community-based resources were cut-off, said Dupuis-Blanchard, including housekeeping and transportation to medical appointments. 

"That was all cut because it was not deemed essential. And that was OK for a week, or two weeks, maybe three. But after a while, it really starts to have an impact." 

Window visits were often a poor substitute for pre-COVID visits. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

She said seniors living on their own are telling researchers that they felt forgotten. 

"I rarely hear, in my research, seniors in the community compare themselves to residents in nursing homes, but in this case, they have."

She said a lot of attention was paid to nursing homes and those residents were given iPads and smartphones in order to connect with family members. But that wasn't made available to seniors in the community, said Dupuis-Blanchard. 

She said seniors often come to rely on those services that were deemed nonessential. 

"And it's the things that we don't realize — it's the neighbour dropping in, the transportation to medical appointments, to grocery stores, and things like that ... That was all of a sudden not there anymore. And for those who really depend on this informal network of support, it's really starting to have an impact."

Dupuis-Blanchard said her team will reach out to the same seniors in November and December to gather a longer-term perspective.

Cecile Cassista, the executive director of the Coalition for Seniors and Nursing Home Residents’ Rights, said she's received heart-wrenching calls from people unable to visit loved ones in nursing homes. (Submitted by Cecile Cassista)

Cecile Cassista isn't surprised at what respondents are telling Dupuis-Blanchard. She's been hearing similar stories for months. 

The executive director of the Coalition for Seniors and Nursing Home Residents' Rights said some of the stories are "heart-wrenching." 

Family members who had been visiting regularly and helping with daily care, were suddenly banned from the facilities, leaving workers even more stretched than normal. 

Cassista said she also heard from nursing home workers who were expected to enforce the rules. 

One worker told Cassista, "Our residents deserve better. For many, this will be their last summer. Their last year. Their last few days. We cannot continue on this way. Where are these people on this Higgs government radar?"

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