Nova Scotia

Absence of volunteers creates staffing pressures at N.S. nursing homes

Long-term care homes in Nova Scotia have been dealing with the challenge of ensuring their residents get enough mental and physical fun to stay healthy and engaged, while not being allowed to have volunteers work at the facilities.

Long-term care facilities can no longer rely on crucial volunteers to fill gaps in care

Residents and staff of Oakwood Terrace participate in a 'barn dance' during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Oakwood Terrace)

Seniors homes in Nova Scotia have been scrambling to keep their residents physically and mentally active without the assistance of volunteers.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, long-term care facilities have restricted physical access to outsiders.

This has left some seniors feeling isolated as family and loved ones stopped visiting.

It has also meant that homes have been trying to cope without the assistance of volunteers.

"Facilities relied on volunteers to pick up the slack for one-on-one interactions," said Bill VanGorder, vice-chair of CARP, formerly known as the Canadian Association of Retired Persons.

Bill VanGorder is a spokesperson with the Nova Scotia chapter of CARP, an advocacy group for seniors. (Paul Poirier/CBC)

"Some medium-size homes would have had 50 to 100 volunteers supervised by four staff members. Now they just have staff members."

Angela Berrette, executive director of Saint Vincent's Nursing Home in Halifax, said volunteers provided a personal level of care to residents by reading books to them and playing games.

"All those wonderful things that happened, without anyone even seeing it," she said. "The volunteers come in and do this wonderful service and we are really missing out on that right now."

It's a sentiment echoed by recreation therapist Marisa Doucette. 

"We might be a team of four, but they don't realize the impact of the number of volunteers," she said. "They are the ones that come up behind the team and make recreation what it is."

Physical distancing requirements also make it harder for seniors to engage in group activities that help to keep their brains active and reduce cognitive decline.

Angela Berrette is the executive director of Saint Vincent's Nursing Home in Halifax. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

Provincial pandemic regulations prevent residents from venturing outside the grounds of long-term care facilities. 

Berrette said in past years, residents could take part in an annual fishing trip or go for ice cream, but this is now no longer possible with the restrictions in place.

Technology has helped ease the problem in some areas. Staff use iPads to let residents have virtual meetings with their families.

Marisa Doucette is a recreation therapist at Saint Vincent's Nursing Home. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

Berrette said the technology is welcome and it has helped some residents stay in touch with loved ones. But she said only about a third of residents are taking part in virtual visits. 

"Some residents may not see or hear as well ... or understand what the face on the screen means. You do need to have a bit of cognition to participate in that method and that is a challenge for residents," she said.

Not all homes are feeling the pinch caused by the lack of volunteers equally.

Gary Comeau, director of recreation and volunteer services at Oakwood Terrace in Dartmouth, N.S., said it was a struggle at first, but the facility has adjusted well to a lack of volunteers.

Gary Comeau is the director of recreation and vounteer services at Oakwood Terrace in Dartmouth, N.S. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

He said Oakwood Terrace also uses iPads for video calling and has hired "enthusiastic" students to help residents with the technology.

"We're still able to provide the services that we provided before. Mind you, in a best-case scenario we'd love to have our volunteers and family with us, but we're managing quite well right now," he said.


Vernon Ramesar


Vernon Ramesar is a reporter and video and radio journalist originally based in Trinidad. He now lives in Halifax.