Long-term care homes unprepared for residents' declining mental health, say Sudbury families

A Sudbury woman says her mother's mental health decline while in long-term care could have been prevented had caregivers been allowed access to their loved ones during the first wave of COVID-19.

'Being locked up in a room was very difficult for my mom,' says Patricia Pelto

Elianna Desbois peers through the glass of a window at St. Gabriel's Villa in Chelmsford. (Submitted by Patricia Pelto)

When Patricia Pelto thinks of her mother, she's bombarded by the memory of her trembling voice over the telephone during one of their final conversations.

Since March, the majority of the pair's conversations happened in the parking lot of St. Gabriel's Villa — a long-term care home — where Pelto would crane her neck up to see her mother's face peering down from behind the glass of her second-floor window. 

Her mother, Elianna Desbois was 96 when she died on Aug. 1. She died at St. Gabriel's Villa, located in Chelmsford, a community in the Greater Sudbury Area. 

"I still see her sitting in that window," Pelto said, "I went one night and she said, 'I don't know why I would want to live. This is no life ... I get to see you through a window and get to talk to you through a window. Why would I want to keep living like this? I can't even hug you or touch you.'" 

'Locked up in a room'

Pelto says she began to record some of their conversations to document her mother's rapidly declining mental state, as they dealt with the home's COVID-19 restrictions. 

St. Garbiel's Villa was not the only home to implement strict visitor restrictions, barring caregivers from seeing their loved ones.

In March, the Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams, "strongly recommended" that long-term care homes cease non-essential visits with the aim of protecting residents, but many families have since said locking out caregivers has led to irreparable damage — which some long-term care residents have not survived. 

Patricia Pelto flicks through old photos of her mother, Elianna Desbois, who died in her long-term care home in August. She did not die from contracting COVID-19. (Sam Juric/CBC)

"Being locked up in a room was very difficult for my mom," Pelto said, "Her character had started to change. She was getting angry, she was getting frustrated." 

By May, Pelto said her mother was spending most of her time alone in her room, with rare one-on-one time with staff.

The situation prompted Pelto to write a letter to the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. She told the ministry that preventing caregivers from seeing their loved ones during COVID-19 was only making matters worse. She said her mother's declining mental and physical condition was preventable, if only the ministry would allow caregivers access to their loved ones during the lockdown.

They need to feel like they're living in their home — not in a jail, as my Mom used to call it.— Patricia Pelto, caregiver

Desbois had a history of heart complications and died of cardiac arrest in August, but Pelto suspects the crippling loneliness and stress of the home's COVID-19 restrictions was the catalyst. 

In September, the Ford government released new guidelines around caregiver access to homes. Under the new rules, essential caregivers will be allowed to visit homes, even during COVID-19 outbreaks, subject to direction from the local health unit.

The updated policy means a resident can designate two caregivers who can visit without time limits. Even so, caregivers like Pelto remain on the alert, knowing rules and guidelines could change as the COVID-19 crisis evolves.

She said she's bracing herself for what could happen in long-term care homes if visitor restrictions are put in place again and caregivers are locked out from their loved ones. Pelto said she fears homes like St. Gabriel's Villa are not prepared to deal with the potential effects on mental health should another wave spread to the north. 

Pelto says her mother's mental health took a sharp dive as the pandemic took hold. (Submitted by Patricia Pelto)

"They need care, they need activities, they need to be motivated. They need to feel like they're living in their home — not in a jail, as my Mom used to call it," Pelto said, "I think they're not prepared at all." 

St. Gabriel's Villa did not respond to requests for interview from the CBC. 

Mental health strategy needed

Evelyn Dutrisac's husband Roland is also a resident at the home and Dutrisac is president of St. Gabriel Villa's Family Council. She says while the staff at the villa are great, a more significant investment needs to be made in a mental health strategy at long-term care homes.

To see these people I have known for about two years, very active always talking — and now, in their rooms not being able to go out.— Evelyn Dutrisac, president of St. Gabriel's Family Council


Dutrisac suggests hiring companion staff for residents, who could help social workers in the building manage the mental health of residents. Ideally, she said, the companion staff would be responsible for spending quality, one-on-one time with residents to socialize with them, to keep their spirits up.

Evelyn Dutrisac and her husband Roland at St. Gabriel's Villa in Chelmsford. (Sam Juric/CBC)

"It's a sadness to see these people I have known for about two years, very active always talking and now, in their rooms not being able to go out," she said. 

She said retired teachers like herself, for example, would be ideal candidates for the work. 

"We need to see long-term care where we not just placing people we're finding a new home for them. It has to become a place where family, staff and residents work together to improve the quality of life and the end of life situation," Dutrisac said.

In an emailed statement to the CBC, the Ministry of Long-Term Care said changes to visitor policies can be necessary to protect residents and staff. Officials said the ministry will continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation. They also said the ministry acknowledges the importance of family support to the overall wellbeing of residents.

In sharing her mother's story, Pelto said she hopes others might be spared from having to experience the same grief and loneliness her mother lived through from behind a pane of glass.

"We should be able to keep looking after our loved ones," she said, "Just like as if they were at home. They are part of us, and we are a part of them." 

While it's difficult for Pelto to think of what her mother lived through during her last few weeks of life, she says she forces herself to remember it wasn't always that way. (Submitted by Patricia Pelto)


Sam Juric


Sam Juric is a CBC reporter and producer, through which she's had the privilege of telling stories from P.E.I., Sudbury and Nunavut.


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