Nfld. & Labrador

Residents of N.L. retirement homes 'hope and pray' visitor restrictions don't last long

Public Health has implemented strict visitor restrictions at long-term and personal-care facilities across the province, and residents are once again struggling with isolation from family and friends.

'It takes a toll,' says resident of Witless Bay care home

Public Health has restricted visitation at long-term and personal-care homes across the province, including Pleasant View Towers in St John's. (Paul Daly/CBC)

As Newfoundland and Labrador contends with the Omicron variant, seniors living in long-term and personal-care homes are dealing with yet another lockdown.

Public Health has suspended visitation at assisted living facilities, hospitals and long-term and personal-care homes across the province. Residents are allowed one designated support person, but under special circumstances.

Teresa Bowen, a 74-year-old resident at Alderwood Estates, a personal-care home in Witless Bay, said the mood among residents is sombre.

"You know, it takes a toll," she told CBC News. "It takes a toll on your mind."

Bowen noted Alderwood residents have already been through multiple lockdowns over the past two years and said the prospect of going without visits from friends and family again is "terrible." 

Bowen said she's seen changes in her fellow residents due to the isolation.

"One time you go and you go up to lunch and everybody would be chit-chatting. And now, of course, when you go up to lunch, nobody hardly says anything." 

She said she became particularly frustrated after Monday's COVID-19 briefing, when Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said it's inevitable that most people in Newfoundland and Labrador will get COVID-19. Fitzgerald said the Omicron variant, while more infectious, does seem to be more mild than previous COVID-19 variants.

"Well, the first thing I thought about was, 'Gee, let me get it and have it over with, you know? Then I'll be free,'" Bowen said.

Alderwood Estates recreation director Renee Houlihan, seen here in an image from July, said many residents are feeling 'depressed and despondent' as a result of the latest lockdown. (Emma Grunwald/CBC)

Renee Houlihan, Alderwood Estates' recreation director, said residents are frustrated after going through multiple lockdowns and getting vaccinated, only to be locked down again.

She said residents questioned the visitation restrictions after the province's chief medical officer of health said it's inevitable that most people will get COVID-19.

"When will it be deemed safe enough to lift them out again? And if it is that mild and everyone is going to get it, you know, where do they fit into this plan?" Houlihan asked.

Calculating risk

Houlihan said she isn't criticizing public health measures or the officials themselves but pointing out the consequences of those measures.

"When you're in the trenches and you're looking at the seniors who are missing their families and are looking out the window waiting to be let out, you know, and they're pining and they're becoming depressed and despondent … all they have on their hands is time; again, it's very difficult to watch."

During the first wave of the pandemic from March to August 2020, residents of nursing and seniors' homes accounted for more than 80 per cent of reported COVID-19 deaths in Canada. Newfoundland and Labrador was one of the few parts of the country that did not see significant infection in long-term and personal-care homes.

On Tuesday, Eastern Health's head of infection prevention and control, Dr. Natalie Bridger, said nearly every long-term care facility or personal-care home in eastern Newfoundland has had a COVID-19 exposure.

In a statement Thursday, Western Health announced further visitor restrictions at Bay St. George Long Term Care Centre due to an outbreak of COVID-19. As of Thursday, 25 out of 107 residents and 22 staff members had tested positive for the virus, and staff have been redeployed from other facilities to help care for residents.

The impact of loneliness

The director of information and referral services at Seniors N.L., an organization that connects seniors with a variety of resources in Newfoundland and Labrador, says the organization has been getting calls since the beginning of the pandemic from seniors feeling isolated or anxious due to being stuck at home.

Elizabeth Seigel, director of information and referral services at Seniors N.L., says research shows that social isolation and loneliness can affect people physically. (Paula Gale/CBC )

"Research has shown that social isolation and loneliness can actually affect you physically," Elizabeth Siegel told CBC. "It can increase blood pressure, heart disease and Alzheimer's. So it really is a concern that people are going to be isolated even longer now." 

She said Seniors N.L. has peer support volunteers — who are seniors themselves — who can connect lonely callers with friendly calling programs and other services.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Office of the Newfoundland and Labrador Seniors Advocate said it respects the decision to implement visitor restrictions in long-term and personal-care homes.

"While we recognize that having restrictions in place once again creates stress and upset with both residents and family members, the restrictions are necessary to ensure patients and residents are not exposed to COVID-19."

Public health officials say visiting restrictions will be reassessed later this month. The residents of Alderwood Estates, as well as other long-term and personal-care facilities across the province, are waiting for that day with bated breath.

"I hope and pray it will be over soon, for our sake, anyway," Bowen said. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Gavin Simms

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