'We hugged and hugged': Families reunite at N.W.T. seniors' homes after COVID-19 rules loosen

Cailey Mercredi didn't expect to see her grandparents again in person this year because of COVID-19, but a recent change of rules made for a lovely family surprise.

Visitors weren't allowed into territory's long-term facilities since late March

William Powless, a resident of the Avens facility in Yellowknife, is reunited with a relative after the territory loosened pandemic restrictions for long-term care homes. (Submitted by Gloria Taylor)

Cailey Mercredi didn't expect to see her grandparents again in person this year because of COVID-19.

Both in their 80s, Betty and Gavin Hollis live at Avens, a long-term care facility in Yellowknife. It and other long-term care homes in the Northwest Territories went into lockdown in March in response to the pandemic.

"It was certainly a huge hole missing in our lives to no longer have regular visits with them," said Mercredi.

But to her surprise in early July, Mercredi found herself donning a blue surgical mask and eagerly signing into the home to meet her grandparents in person.

"I was a horse at the gates," said Mercredi, who caught her grandfather's eye through a crack in the door while she was getting screened.

"We just couldn't stop looking at each other … I was ready to just jump through that door and share space with them." 

I really, really miss holding my little sister's hand.— Patti-Kay Hamilton

In early July, most of the eight long-term care facilities in N.W.T. began offering in-person visits to essential visitors, such as family and close friends. Inuvik's facility is still restricting visitations due to a possible case of chickenpox.

The easing of visitor restrictions began about two weeks following the territory's transition into Phase 2 of its reopening plan. There have been five confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the N.W.T. — all travel related and recovered.

When Avens locked down in March, the staff quickly set up weekly virtual visits for the residents through social media apps. 

Window visits followed in mid-June. Residents used walkie-talkies while gazing through a large glass door at their visitors.

Now, designated visitors can come inside or into the courtyard — provided they pass COVID-19 screening, and after temperature checks and hand sanitizing.

Only five essential guests are allowed in N.W.T. long-term care facilities at a time, according to the territory's Health and Social Services Authority.

The home started arranging window visits in mid-June. Residents used walkie-talkies while gazing through a large glass door at their visitors. (Submitted by Gloria Taylor)

"Me and my daughter, we hugged and hugged and hugged," said 79-year-old Eileen Beaudoin about reuniting with her daughter at Avens.

Months of not seeing her family was "terrible," she said.

"I knows what they feels like in jail," said Beaudoin. "You can't touch them, you can't hug them, you can't do nothing."

Richard Leblanc, 70, says he's anxiously awaiting his in-person visit with his daughter.

"I am going to give her a hug and then we're going to sit down and talk about the old past," he said in the Avens courtyard, where he feeds peanuts to the squirrels to take his mind off the pandemic. "Chat and keep the love going." 

Leblanc says he also misses leaving the facility for walks or to buy a chocolate bar at the corner store.

Resident Eileen Beaudoin and an Avens staff member. Beaudoin said months of not seeing her family was 'terrible.' (Kate Kyle/CBC)

"It's stress … [But] we have to endure our part because the virus is bigger than us. If we don't follow the rules we might be a target."

Patti-Kay Hamilton knows that stress. The transition to in-person visits came just at the right time.

Both her sister, Annie Hamilton, who has late-stage Alzheimer's disease, and mother-in-law Anne True are living at the Northern Lights Special Care Home in Fort Smith, N.W.T.

"I really, really miss holding my little sister's hand," said Hamilton.

She said she began developing a plan to sneak her mother-in-law, who Hamilton describes as a "live wire," out of the facility for a drive to help break the loneliness.

"I had all kinds of schemes," said Hamilton.

Richard Leblanc holds a bag of peanuts to feed squirrels in the home's courtyard. He says it's to take his mind off the pandemic. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

She abandoned the mission after learning True would have to quarantine upon her return.

Luckily, their in-person reunion happened in a gazebo, in time for True's 95th birthday.

"It felt so good to just be able to relax," said Hamilton, who added that her sister slept through most of it.

Hamilton says her sister is getting even more attention from staff who have stepped up "big time" to help keep the residents comfortable and busy during the pandemic.

The Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority says if there's a second wave and more confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the territory, in-person visits could be put on hold again.

Cailey Mercredi is still holding onto the memories of that first "unbelievable" visit in early July.

"My grandma just started nattering," said Mercredi. She said her grandmother — who, because of her dementia, is non-communicative — was excited to see them.

Her grandfather, who Mercredi describes as a man of very little words, simply said to her: "I've missed you, too."

The family is ready if there's a second wave and more lockdowns.

"We've got a pretty full cup. I just know they will be safe and that's a really comforting feeling. I have only Avens to thank for that."

Patti-Kay Hamilton caressing her sister Annie Hamilton at the Northern Lights Special Care Home in Fort Smith, N.W.T., before the pandemic. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)


Kate Kyle is a reporter for CBC North based in Yellowknife. Find her on Twitter @_kate_kyle

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