Saskatoon·Point of View

In attempt to avoid COVID-19, we can't ignore damaging effects of physical distancing

This week, my wife and I celebrate our 53rd wedding anniversary. It is the first time we are doing so without being able to give one another a kiss, a hug or even hold hands.

My wife of 53 years and I have been unable to have physical contact since the pandemic hit

Before the coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions on long-term care home visits were imposed, one of Betty Powell's favourite things to do was to walk to an off-leash dog park. Here, she is shown a few years ago with the Powells's 'grand-dog.' (Thomas Powell)

I have a saying that there are two viruses at work during this pandemic: one is COVID-19 and the other is physical distancing. Both can kill us.

This week, my wife and I celebrate our 53rd wedding anniversary. It is the first time we are doing so without being able to give one another a kiss, a hug or even hold hands. 

Betty and I met 54 years ago and, it would seem, fell in love immediately. Now, she is a resident in a secure dementia unit of a long-term care facility. And while the staff there is absolutely wonderful and has helped facilitate weekly video conferences, that's not the same as truly communicating with Betty the way that works best for her.

Conversation and communication are two radically different events; communication is more than 90 per cent non-verbal and when one is wearing a mask and unable to touch, it is nigh unto impossible. 

I believe there should be procedures introduced, much like those followed by the staff of these facilities, that would allow me to physically interact with my wife. 

Betty and Thomas Powell have been married for 53 years. Betty now lives in a secure dementia unit of a long-term care facility. She doesn't speak much anymore. (Submitted by Thomas Powell)

The last time my wife and I were able to properly communicate with each other was the middle of March. Betty can only say four or five words before becoming confused and retreating into her own world. Our communication used to be looking at photos on my phone and going for walks. She especially loved walking to an off-leash dog park and playing with the dogs as the owners would allow. 

Saskatchewan's public health orders have put an end to that. The staff at Betty's home has only been able to allow us to video conference, interact face-to-face through a window with me outside the building and, more recently, meet face-to-face while maintaining a two-metre distance.

Recently, during our weekly 15-minute video conference with Betty and our two daughters, my wife was lost in her own mind. She didn't want to stay sitting in front of the computer. So, I then had to wait 168 hours for another 15-minute conversation, which lasted less than three minutes before she disappeared.

In reality, the allowance of in-person visits has made absolutely no difference. On top of needing to avoid physical contact, Betty has trouble staying in one place. She roams, and it's difficult to get her attention. She once stared at me intently for a few minutes. Holding her gaze was the best connection we've felt in some time.

Thomas Powell says he would follow more intensive safety procedures if it meant being able to have physical contact with his wife, Betty, at the long-term care home where she now lives. (Thomas Powell)

The Saskatchewan Health Authority now allows a designated family member to touch their loved ones to assist in care if they have been screened, are wearing a mask, and have followed proper hand hygiene. They also allow contact in "compassionate" or end-of-life visits. My wife doesn't fall into either category.

The SHA does not understand the difference between acute and long-term care. In acute care, a person is admitted to hospital because he or she is sick. The staff diagnose, then treat the illness and get the patient out of the hospital as soon as possible. Speed is of the essence. 

In long-term care, people are not patients; they are residents. They are not sick; they are moving in — very much like you or I might move into an apartment. It is the role of the staff to help these residents to live happy and active lives for the rest of their days. Quality of life rather than speed of discharge is the key factor.

The staff of the long-term care home is allowed to interact with residents despite coming and going from the building because each of them is willing to keep a change of clean clothes on site and change into these clothes as soon as he or she reports for work. The staff also have a temperature check and respond to a checklist of questions regarding COVID-19 and potential exposure. 

I would absolutely be willing to do exactly the same as the staff if it meant that I could hold my wife's hand while there is a chance she still remembers me.


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About the Author

The Rev. Mr. Thomas D. Powell is a husband, father, grandfather and retired minister of the United Church of Canada. The first 23 years of his ministry were spent serving several pastoral charges in Saskatchewan and the last 19 years were spent in health care as a chaplain at Royal University Hospital and Oliver Lodge Long-term Care Home, and adjunct professor. Music is a huge part of Tom’s life; he plays trumpet and flugelhorn in four bands in Saskatoon and also sings in his church’s senior choir.

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