In their 90s, Bryce and Hazel Gibson just want to stay together: bureaucracy stands in the way

Bryce and Hazel Gibson spent almost every day of their lives together from the time they were kids. Now, at 95 and 93 respectively, they find red tape is making that more difficult.

Separated only during WWII, Halifax couple forced to spend evenings and some days apart

Bryce and Hazel Gibson were married in 1943, about a year after he returned to Halifax following three years with the navy in the Second World War. They've been together since their school days. (Submitted by Judy Gibson)

Eighty-five years later, Bryce Gibson can still see that little girl in the Halifax schoolyard.

"She was very pretty and [had] a nice smile, and I spoke to her, and she spoke to me," the 95-year-old Halifax resident says. He's sitting beside that same girl, now his 93-year-old wife, Hazel.

"It wasn't long after that I was talking to her mother and her father, and I was hooked. I never looked back …. She's the only woman I ever felt that I loved."

Except for the three years he served in the navy during the Second World War, sailing the Atlantic and Pacific oceans aboard HMCS Prince Henry, Bryce and Hazel have been inseparable pretty much since that day in the schoolyard.

Until March 2017, Bryce and Hazel Gibson had spent pretty much every evening together for 75 years. That changed when they went into separate long-term care sites. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

When he returned to Halifax following a bayonet piercing of his kneecap, Bryce took a job making deliveries for the men's store Hazel's father operated on Gottingen Street. About a year later, in 1943, they were married.

"We knew it was to be," said Hazel. "So that's it — we got married."

From there, life happened.

Four sons would eventually join them through the years, as Bryce trained and worked as an auto mechanic, before taking a job with the Province of Nova Scotia.

They were always together. Until now.

'It just doesn't seem right'

In March 2017, while the two were residing in an assisted-living apartment, Hazel broke her ankle in a fall and hit her head. The concussion left her in hospital for three months. At about the same time, Bryce started showing signs of dementia.

As a veteran, he was approved for a place in the Camp Hill Veterans Memorial building. But Hazel, who is not a veteran, couldn't join her husband. Instead, she is at another care facility.

And while Hazel spends at least four days a week at Camp Hill visiting Bryce, having to say goodbye at the end of each of those visits is a time neither relishes. For the first time in 75 years, they are spending their evenings apart.

Like many veterans care sites in Canada, Camp Hill is seeing its vacancies increase as the number of eligible veterans decreases. The demographic reality is that Second World War and Korean War veterans are dying, and there's no one coming behind them for these beds.

"It just doesn't seem right after being together for so many years," said Hazel. "I wake up in the middle of the night and roll over and Bryce is not there."

"I'd like to live with my wife," said Bryce. "I think there should be some kind of a way that we can live together, instead of her going one way and me going another way. It just doesn't work right."

Veterans Affairs Canada currently uses 132 of the 175 beds in Camp Hill Veterans Memorial. (CBC)

The contract between Veterans Affairs Canada and the Nova Scotia Health Department allows the latter to use vacant beds at its discretion in circumstances it deems appropriate.

Sandie Williamson, the director of health-care programs for Veterans Affairs, said it would be up to the provincial health authority to determine if a contract bed is used for a non-veteran.

"The province, at this point, hasn't used those beds for long-term care, but that really is within the purview of the Nova Scotia Health Authority to determine how they want to use vacant beds," she said in a telephone interview.

A complicated process

The Gibsons and their family are willing to cover the costs if Hazel were permitted to live at Camp Hill. Given the couple's history and the fact there are 43 beds at Camp Hill currently not being used by Veterans Affairs, they don't see it as an unreasonable request.

But Lindsay Peach, vice-president of integrated services for the health authority, said it's not that simple.

The agreement with Veterans Affairs allows the province only to use vacant beds on a temporary basis, she said. That measure was put in place so that if a veteran came along in need of a bed, they wouldn't be left waiting. Peach said even with the demographic realities facing veterans of the Second World War and Korean War, there would still need to be an OK from Ottawa.

"The first step in that would be for Veterans Affairs Canada to indicate to us that those beds aren't required by them on a more permanent basis."

From there, the Health Department would have to determine if newly available beds would even be licensed for use by the community.

'It's just not a possibility'

Peach said there are other potential options.

There are care sites in the province that have both community beds and Veterans Affairs contract beds, although none of them are based in Halifax. The other option, she said, would be a community nursing home, in which case Veterans Affairs would still contribute to the cost of care for the veteran. In that case, however, space would need to be available for both people.

The challenge in this case, said Peach, is that the site in question is Camp Hill.

"They could be placed in a community nursing home together somewhere in the Halifax area, but it's just not a possibility for us at Camp Hill."

Bryce and Hazel Gibson have been pretty well inseparable since meeting in the schoolyard 85 years ago. (Submitted by Judy Gibson)

The Gibsons have nothing but praise for staff at Camp Hill. A place is set at the table for Hazel each day she comes to visit, and, despite her offerings, money is never accepted for her meal. She's likewise included in any activities happening on the days she visits.

"They are awfully good to us," she said. "There's no complaints at all as to where we are. It's just that around three o'clock in the afternoon I have to say, 'Goodbye, I'll see you tomorrow.' That's the only thing that bothers either one of us."

At this point, the two are resigned to the idea their situation isn't likely to change. But if nothing else, they'd like to see the rules changed so, in the future, a couple in a similar situation is able to remain together.

"Life would end on a better way if we were together for the rest of our lives," said Hazel.

"We would love to be together all the time, the way we have been all our lives."

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About the Author

Michael Gorman

Reporter

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia who covers Province House, rural communities, and everything in between. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca