Mother, daughter finally meet face-to-face at care home as province eases COVID-19 restrictions
Residents allowed 1 outdoor visit per week, with strict rules in place
For three months, Sherri Zielinski has been visiting her 83-year-old mother, Margaret Simpson, at Orchard Villa Retirement Community.
But because of the novel coronavirus, they've been separated by a window.
Until recently, Zielinski wasn't sure when she would be able to visit in person, or even if her mother would survive the COVID-19 outbreak that tore through the Pickering facility.
But that day came on Thursday, the first day the Ontario government deemed it safe for families to visit loved ones in long-term care and retirement homes if they first test negative for COVID-19.
"I am happy," Zielinski said following her first visit with her mom.
"I think I expected it to be worse."
The pair were able to spend 30 minutes sitting across from one another at a table in the home's courtyard.
Cognitively, she said her mom seemed okay. But physically, she said Smith doesn't look like the same person she did the last time they saw each other.
"She has a long road of recovery, but she is taking baby steps," Zielinski said.
340 residents and staff test positive, 78 deaths
Zielinski's mother is one of 340 people at the facility — including both residents and staff — who tested positive for COVID-19.
A total of 78 residents died, making it the long-term care home with the most deaths in Ontario during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The military was called in to help the home, and documented long-standing problems, including staff shortages, abuse and neglect.
And the home is facing new scrutiny following an investigation by CBC's Marketplace and The National.
Families who asked that their loved ones be transferred to hospital from Orchard Villa Retirement Community in Pickering, Ont., east of Toronto, say they were told hospitals were closed to residents of long-term care homes and that COVID-positive residents would need to remain — and possibly die — in the home.
Strict rules in place for visits
To minimize any further spread of the disease, there are now strict rules in place to safely facilitate visits between residents and their loved ones.
Patients at long-term care homes across the province are allowed one outdoor visit per week with one visitor.
The visitors will have to test negative for COVID-19 within the two weeks leading up to the visit and pass a temperature screening upon arrival. They must also wear a face covering at all times stay at least two metres apart from residents.
"We just can't have a flare-up with people coming in and coming out," Premier Doug Ford said at the province's daily COVID-19 update on Thursday.
Ford called it a cautious restart.
"It's absolutely critical to our senior residents, we just don't want another outbreak."
Though some families were able to reunite Thursday, others weren't so lucky.
Camilla Care Community in Mississauga, for example, has been locked down for at least an additional two weeks after a staff member recently tested positive.
Not everyone sees the province's easing of restrictions as a solely positive step.
Lisa Smith had an appointment on Thursday to see her dad, who lives at Cawthra Gardens Long-Term Care Residence in Mississauga.
The home is currently free of COVID-19, which means visits are allowed. But Smith worries the restrictions could be too hard on her father.
"Will this make it even worse?" Smith asked. The "air hugs" residents and visitors are encouraged to practise are "absolutely ridiculous," she said.
"It's not human, it's very dehumanizing."
Others accept the restrictions, if they allow a reunion with their loved ones.
"We've never been apart," said Barbara Davis, who hasn't seen her husband of 63 years since mid-March.
"It's nice to hold his hand and stuff, but not right now," she said.
"But the time will come and we can do that again."
'She definitely didn't want to go back in there'
Meanwhile, Zielinski said the reunion with her mother was equal parts difficult and joyous.
"She definitely didn't want to go back in there," she said of her mom.
"She wants to go walking, she wants to feel me and touch me," Zielinski said.
"That won't be happening for a while."
With files from Ali Chiasson, Linda Ward