'I'm deathly afraid': Long-term care residents fear emotional neglect, understaffing as 2nd wave looms
Ontario long-term care commission found chronic worker shortages have compounded pandemic's toll
With winter looming and the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic gaining momentum across Canada, long-term care home residents say they fear their physical health is being guarded at the expense of their mental and emotional well-being.
"I actually went through here [my home] when this first happened and asked everybody if they would rather see their loved ones, with the risk of getting COVID, or the alternative. And they all said, 'We'd rather die than not be able to see our family members and to be so ostracized,'" said Dianna Green, who lives in a long-term care home in Cranbrook, B.C.
"People need each other, they need contact with their families, they need contact with people who love them, they need to be touched, and I think that's being forgotten about," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.
"We're so worried about preserving lives, but we're not worried about how the lives are."
Earlier this month, an independent commission tasked with investigating how the coronavirus spread in Ontario's long-term care system heard dire warnings that care homes may not be ready for the second wave. Experts on the ground say that's because they are still facing severe staffing shortages.
Provincial data shows dozens of long-term care homes across Ontario are once again experiencing active outbreaks, meaning there is at least one lab-confirmed COVID-19 case on site. There have also been outbreaks in other provinces, including B.C. and Manitoba.
The Ontario commission has since released interim recommendations, which call for an increase in the number of personal support workers (PSWs) to ensure adequate care, and mandating that local health partners help long-term care homes with infection control.
'I nearly went crazy,' says resident
During the first wave of the pandemic, Devora Greenspon's long-term care home in Toronto faced a "massive outbreak" during which residents were split into "cohorts" that separated the ill from the healthy.
She said she was told one morning to have her things packed up by one o'clock — and to bring just five changes of clothes. She was then sent to another woman's room, where all of the furniture was covered up with black garbage bags.
For three and a half months, she couldn't go out; she just stayed behind closed doors, she said. Meanwhile, residents used plastic cutlery and ate their meals out of cardboard containers for the purpose of infection control, she said.
Greenspon said she is "heartbroken" that she hasn't been able to see her family since last Christmas.
"I feel threatened … because I know what happened before, and I'm deathly afraid that that's going to happen again and I'm going to lose some of my friends again," she said.
"I nearly went crazy. It was the most horrible experience."
Greenspon added that she feels there are simply not enough staff working in long-term care homes to help residents through these difficult times.
"And I feel it's because the career choice is not a dignified one," she said.
Staff overworked, injured and 'exhausted'
"The staffing situation is just horrible," said Carolynn Snow, who lives in a care home in Keswick, Ont.
She described the staff at her home as worn out, and said they often work double shifts. Many of those staff members are single mothers who work at two to three different homes to make ends meet because there are few full-time positions at her home, Snow said.
Some of those staff have been injured on the job because of the extra hours they are working, yet they don't have any health benefits, she added.
They're also feeling so guilty because they feel that they're not giving the residents the time and attention they should, but they just don't have the time to do it.- Carolynn Snow, long-term care resident
"It's really depressing to see them working so hard and looking so tired," said Snow. "They're also feeling so guilty because they feel that they're not giving the residents the time and attention they should, but they just don't have the time to do it."
Snow said the situation is "demoralizing" for both staff and residents.
At Green's B.C. care home, which houses around 100 residents, there have been times where just one nurse and another staff member have been on duty, she said.
Other nights, management has had to come in and act as the nurse, she said, and the women working there often work 14 to 16 hours a day, for days in a row.
"They're exhausted, you know, and they have families at home and a life outside of here as well that they have to take care of, and they're just run right into the ground," Green said. "It can really be felt through the building."
- 'Care that is necessary for life': Personal support workers need full-time, regulated work, experts say
The women said they believe PSWs need to be paid better, and that long-term care homes should have another level of staff that can take residents from one place to another, read to them, and help with other activities that will free up PSWs to provide the important care residents need.
"I really think they need to elevate career choices for PSWs, and make it more appealing and give these people the respect they deserve," said Greenspon. "Because they work really hard. And I'm sorry to say that some residents really treat them badly."
John Callaghan, co-lead counsel for Ontario's Long-Term Care COVID-19 Commission, said the government is working hard to better prepare care homes for the second wave.
The commission is trying to help by calling for the government to bolster staffing in homes, provide access to personal protective equipment and rapid testing, and mandate — instead of recommend — that homes have access to the wider health sector.
But the understaffing issue is a "long-term problem that needs a long-term solution," he added.
"There is no question that … more staff is going to cost more money," Callaghan said. "And it's a matter of where you value your elders in the system and whether you're prepared to spend that money."
Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Cameron Perrier and Samira Mohyeddin.