After beating COVID-19, long-term care resident battles city's heat wave

Tracey Saunders says her 90-year-old mother beat COVID-19 in April, but now she’s fighting a new battle against the city’s heat wave. Premier Doug Ford says he wants to 'rapidly' mandate air conditioning in long-term care residents' bedrooms.

Tracey Saunders says a lack of air conditioning could be worsening her mother's breathing issues

Tracey Saunders and her mother, Rosa Mary Abrahams, pictured on Feb. 27 at her father's funeral. Abrahams became a resident at Midland Gardens Care Community the previous week. (Submitted by Tracey Saunders)

Tracey Saunders says she could see her mother's hair was wet on a recent FaceTime call.

Rosa Mary Abrahams, 90, lives at Midland Gardens Care Community in Scarborough. The long-term care home has portable air conditioning units in common areas and in some residents' rooms, but Saunders says, to her knowledge, her mother's room does not have any. 

"[Her hair's] been brushed off of her face, you know, just sort of patted down on her face as though it's oily, and you can see that she looks damp," Saunders told CBC's Metro Morning Thursday.

She believes the dampness she saw was perspiration from the sweltering conditions. Saunders says her mother just beat COVID-19 a few months ago, and now she's fighting a new battle against the city's heat wave.

She wants to see the province and long-term care homes make air conditioning mandatory in all residents' rooms. 

"I think it's essential. I think it's absolutely essential," she said.

"People that have any sort of difficulty with breathing, respiratory illnesses of any kind, it would only make it much worse for them to try to breathe the hot air."

Premier Doug Ford said he wants to 'rapidly' mandate air conditioning in long-term care residents' bedrooms during the province's daily COVID-19 briefing on Wednesday after CBC News first asked about the topic the day before. 

"We're going to move forward with this," Ford said on Wednesday. "We're looking into funds to support this."

As it stands, the provincial legislation governing long-term care facilities does not require air conditioning, saying only that homes without it must have a "cooling plan" in place.

Premier Doug Ford says the government will move 'rapidly' to make air conditioning mandatory in long-term care homes (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Sienna Senior Living, which operates Midland Gardens, says in an email to CBC Toronto the company can't release information about any particular resident, but it says it's working on more ways to deal with the heatwave.

"We have already purchased an additional 10 portable air conditioning units for Midland Gardens," said Natalie Gokchenian, director of communications with Sienna Senior Living.

"These are being delivered to the residence today and will be placed throughout the residence and individual rooms based on temperature readings."

Saunders says however it comes, there needs to be swift action. On top of the sweltering heat, she says many residents like her mother are still dealing with the impact of the pandemic.

"She's just laying in a bed where she keeps thinking that we've all forgotten about her."

'She's a shell of herself'

Abrahams moved into Midland Gardens in February, just before the pandemic struck in Ontario. 

Saunders says her father died earlier this year — after 71 years of marriage — prompting her mother to experience increasing symptoms of dementia. 

In April, Abrahams tested positive for COVID-19 after an outbreak hit the home.

A total of 42 residents have died as a result of COVID-19 at Midland Gardens. A July 8 update posted on the home's website shows it has seven active cases of COVID-19 among residents, as well as 19 among "team members." More than 100 cases at the home have been resolved.

Although Abrahams beat the virus, she's facing devastating side effects. 

"You can visibly see the deterioration in her face. She is essentially now bed bound whereas when she went in ... she was kicking and screaming," Saunders said.

"COVID has attacked her lungs and it's left it like Swiss cheese, I guess because she'll never recover."

While trying to cope with her mother's ailing health, Saunders says she became increasingly concerned about the home's temperature.

In one of her recent FaceTime calls, Saunders remembers her mother attempting to open a bottle of water.

"She had difficulty opening it and I had to yell, 'Could someone please help her to open that bottle?' And then she tried to drink it and it was just dribbling out of her mouth, and again I had to yell into my phone, you know, 'Please get her a straw!'" Saunders said.

Gokchenian says the home is and will continue taking additional measures to help residents stay cool, including deploying all fans and portable air conditioning units, closing drapes and handing out cold beverages and popsicles.

"We are continuing to look at solutions to ensure that our residents are comfortable in the hot weather, while also preventing the spread of COVID-19."

So far, Saunders says she hasn't had a chance to visit her mother since March, or even bring a cake for her 90th birthday in April, because of ongoing COVID-19 cases at the home.

She said air conditioning would be just one way to improve her mother's well-being after months of hardship.

"She was just so feisty and I thought she'll hold her own for a little while and then the homes all went on lockdown and she's just deteriorated so much," she said.

"She's a shell of herself, just a shell."

With files from Metro Morning, Lisa Xing