Why it took an outside-the-box use of the military to rip the lid off Canada's long-term care crisis

An outside-of-the-box use of the Canadian military has helped focus the attention of political leaders on a long-standing crisis in the care of the elderly.

Sending soldiers to long-term care homes seemed like a strange idea — until they told us what they saw there

Canadian Armed Forces personnel arrive at the Villa Val des Arbes seniors residence, Monday, April 20, 2020 in Laval, Que. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Ursula Drehlich was, by all accounts, a true force of nature. Stubborn. Determined. Disciplined.

"I remember her as being one of the most driven, fiercely independent people I've ever met, one of the most focused people I've ever met," said Sylvia Lyon, her daughter. 

"And yet, she had a very childlike side to her. She loved Christmas. She loved decorating her home for holiday events. She liked to entertain. She liked pretty things. Christmas was more about her than it was for the rest of the family."

Drehlich died on April 23 after contracting the novel coronavirus. The 80-year-old, who immigrated to Canada with her parents from Germany in the 1950s, had multiple health issues stemming from cancer treatment four decades ago, conditions that had left her wheelchair-bound by the end.

Lyon was told in early April her mother had tested positive for COVID-19. In the end, Lyon was told, her feisty mother "slipped away peacefully."

That may be cold comfort now.

Ursula Drehlich (left) and her daughter, Sylvia Lyon. Drehlich died April 23 in a long-term care home after being infected with the novel coronavirus. (Sylvia Lyon)

Drehlich was a resident of the Orchard Villa long-term care home in Pickering, Ont., one of the facilities most heavily criticized in reports filed by the Canadian military medical teams sent into dozens of seniors homes in Quebec and Ontario to help overwhelmed staff cope with the pandemic.

Many of the reports paint ghastly pictures of indifference and neglect. What separates Orchard Villa from the pack are the allegations of capricious cruelty — including a claim that one resident choked to death while being fed lying down.

Lyon had her own list of issues with her mother's care before the pandemic hit, and had filed complaints against the centre.

A legacy of guilt

But reading the military's account of what their members found in the home where her mother lived for seven years left her thunderstruck — and feeling somewhat guilty.

"I feel terrible now," she said. "I think, even though my mum's issues were dealt with, I should have been more of an advocate, except I had other things to deal with.

"It wasn't just my mother. It was everybody. And it wasn't just at this one place. It was at a lot of other places. And I feel very defensive about it [and think], 'Oh my God, how could I have placed my mother in a place like this?'"

WATCH | Problems at Ontario long-term care homes documented for years:

Problems at Ontario long-term care homes documented for years

3 years ago
Duration 3:24
Infractions have been documented for years by government inspectors at Ontario long-term care homes named in a military report alleging horrific conditions at the facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lyons is the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit, filed Monday, against Southbridge Health Care GP Inc. She said the home was a pleasant, even cozy place when it was a family-run business prior to 2015.

Her legal team enclosed in the statement of claim, filed in the Ontario Superior Court, a litany of complaints filed against Orchard Villa, including 65 written warnings and 13 compliance orders issued between 2017 and 2019 — all part of the public record.

'I'm angry at myself'

There have been many media investigations into the dire state of long-term care homes, including work done recently by CBC's Marketplace.  But until soldiers went into those facilities and reported what they saw, those warnings were largely being ignored by provincial leaders and the public.

"We read newspaper reports. We hear reports. The media sometimes has exposés, and we think, 'Oh, that's terrible,' and then we all go into our little bubbles, and I think we're all guilty of that," said Lyon.

"Am I angry? I'm angry at myself. I'm angry at all of us. I'm angry at the fickleness of human beings [who] do not focus on issues and that we wait for a crisis to happen. I think we all have ourselves to blame as well, and that is a very, very bitter pill to swallow."

When Quebec made the initial request for troops to backstop its failing long-term care system, many in government and the defence establishment questioned whether the military was the appropriate institution to tackle the job. "In Canada, we shouldn't have soldiers taking care of seniors," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.

A resident at Orchard Villa Care home in Pickering, Ont., receives a Mother's Day visit from her family, on Sunday, May 10, 2020. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

It was an outside-of-the-box use of the military — which Lyon now believes was entirely appropriate.

The focused yet compassionate perspective of soldiers in the face of inhumane conditions was precisely the tool needed to rip the lid off conditions in some long-term care homes, she said. She hopes it will persuade politicians to finally act.

"It's unfortunate it has taken a crisis like this to bring everything to light," she said. "If you're in the health care business, you shouldn't need someone to tell you to meet the minimum standards."

One of the original purposes of the class action, which has yet to be certified, was to shine a light on critical issues at Orchard Villa such as chronic under-staffing, said Lyon's lawyer, Gary Will.

What happens when the troops leave?

"The family members are not critical of individual nurses and PSWs [personal support workers]," he said.

"I think those individuals were doing the best they could in the situations they were placed [in] by management. It really comes down to a systematic problem with management."

Right now, the federal government and the military have to answer a very fraught question: how do they withdraw soldiers from a teetering system in desperate need of a major overhaul?

Asked about it, the prime minister was typically vague, saying Ottawa is discussing with the provinces how to move beyond the need for military support.

Quebec's premier has made it clear he wants the troops to stay until September. That drew an uncharacteristically clear and frank answer from Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

"I can assure you we can't. We can't do this for long," said Sajjan, who noted the military has stripped its own medical capacity to the bone to meet the demand.

"We will not be able to go that duration just because we don't have the number of personnel, and when you have our people working seven days a week, it's just not sustainable."

Will said he hopes politicians are paying close attention to the military's example.

"It's very easy to take a look at this in the context of, 'COVID hit, and we didn't know it was coming and it's terrible what has happened, but we couldn't avoid what happened here,'" he said. "We had all of the information about the breakdown of the system, and it needs to be fixed."

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