White Coat, Black Art

'I have found out who my heroes are': Scared and lonely, locked-down seniors praise staff

Seniors living in Ontario’s long-term care homes where some residents have been infected with COVID-19 say they are scared and lonely as many facilities enforce physical isolation to curb the virus, but they also praise staff and speak about resilience.

There have been at least 40 coronavirus-linked deaths in Ontario long-term care facilities alone

Nurses wave to hundreds of residents driving by Pinecrest Nursing Home in Bobcaygeon, Ontario, honking their horns to acknowledge their work. (Fred Thornhill/The Canadian Press)
Listen to the full episode26:29

Seniors living in Ontario's long-term care homes where some residents have been infected with COVID-19 say they are scared and lonely as many of the province's facilities enforce social isolation and go into lockdown to curb the virus spreading among the most vulnerable.   

Devora Greenspon, a resident at Extendicare Bayview in Toronto, says the facility has been on lockdown for over two weeks. As of Friday, it had four confirmed cases of COVID-19, involving two residents — one of whom has died — and two staff members.

Greenspon, who is also the treasurer of the Ontario Association of Residents' Councils (OARC), was devastated to learn residents she knew had tested positive. 

"When I found out my tablemate had it, I was very frightened. And I'm still wary, I still have another week to go before I'm sure I'm not gonna come down with it," the 88-year-old told White Coat, Black Art's Dr. Brian Goldman. 

Unable to visit their 94-year-old mother after the COVID-19 lockdown in nursing homes, Shirley Larkin and her sister, Linda Yourshinsky, arranged another way to connect with her. 0:56

Across the province, at least 40 deaths in nursing and retirement homes have been linked to the novel coronavirus. Pinecrest Nursing Home in Bobcaygeon, Ont., has been hit particularly hard, with at least 12 deaths, including one volunteer.

Since the World Health Organization declared a pandemic on March 11, Ontario's Ministry of Health has progressively ramped up measures to try to keep COVID-19 out of long-term care and retirement facilities. It first recommended screening visitors for symptoms and travel history, then advised homes against allowing any non-essential visitors into the facilities.

Greenspon says life amid lockdown is not only "very hard" due to the lack of human interaction, but also "boring" and everything as she knew it has been "put on a standstill."

"There is basically nothing to do. I was going out three times a week for lectures [at] the University of Toronto and George Brown. And of course, that's finished. Now I spend my days reading, watching TV."

"That's about all you can do. I can't have any social interaction with anybody. … I haven't seen anybody for almost three weeks." 

'I have found out who my heroes are'

Dee Lender, executive director of the OARC, says the last few weeks have "stripped away any egos" and brought those working in nursing homes "right down to [their] bare bones."

"I have nothing but admiration and respect for my board members, residents in long-term care and the team members that are supporting them and their families, who are desperate to be in [contact] with their loved ones."

Seniors living in Ontario's long-term care homes where some residents have been infected with COVID-19 say they are scared and lonely. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

While residents are trying to remain optimistic, Lender says she is "extremely concerned" about the impact the pandemic is having on care homes. 

"But also know that this pandemic has caused us all to rise to the challenge and to the responsibility of doing the very, very best possible job to protect the health and safety of really our most vulnerable Ontario citizens."

Greenspon described the home's nurses, personal support workers and staff as the "real troupers," adding that they aren't complaining and coming in "very cheerful and bright" every day.

"You know, they say in a crisis you find out who your friends are, well, I have found out who my heroes are."

"They need to know that all the residents appreciate what they do. They come in, they put their lives at risk because we have people here with the virus. …  They have a hard job and they're really rising to the task."

Residents with dementia at risk

But Greenspon says extra staff could always be used, especially to help with those she calls "wanderers," residents with conditions like dementia who "go in and out of rooms" due to not fully comprehending the lockdowns.  

Dee Lender, executive director of the OARC (left) and Devora Greenspon, also from OARC (right). Lender says the last few weeks have 'stripped away any egos' from those working in nursing homes. (Submitted by Dee Lender)

"If they could sit with them, talk to them, play a game with them — that would be great because then they would stay put and wouldn't be at risk," she said. 

Sharron Cooke, OARC's president and resident at Newmarket Health Centre Long-Term Care, says that while there are no cases of COVID19 at her home, the facility has ramped up precautions to prevent contact between residents, 90 per cent of whom have dementia. 

Cooke says it can be challenging to explain things like physical distancing to residents with dementia.

"They only know their immediate surroundings, so they're not understanding the situation. It's safer to keep them in their room."

"Sometimes it confuses residents. … I had one ask me last night, 'How come that nurse over there is wearing a raincoat?' It was because she had her yellow scrubs on."

'These situations are like war times'

Despite the risks of remaining at Extendicare Bayview, Greenspon says she isn't considering leaving the care facility to go and live with her family.

"I would not go out to put my kids at risk if there was COVID-19 here. I might be carrying it, who knows. … I'd rather stay here. I have made friends here, the staff are fantastic, all the team members here are terrific and I get along with everybody."

Sharron Cooke, OARC's president, says life experience has taught her things can always get better. (Newmarket Health Care Region)

She has managed to remain in contact with her family via Skype and phone calls.

"My kids call to tell me, 'We love you, mom. Keep your chin up.' And of course, I worry about them, too." 

Greenspon stresses that it is equally important for those outside of long-term care to adhere to physical isolation, saying that she can't understand those who aren't heeding that call.

"They're just doing what they wanted to do, to heck with everybody else. That's such a wrong thing to do. You need to take responsibility for your actions. Think about others around you."

Cooke says she has been self-isolating "quite a bit" over the past few months because she worries about contracting COVID-19 while on dialysis and having had surgery in January. 

Despite the circumstances, Cooke says life experience has taught seniors like her things can always get better.

"You have to do what you do. I've lived through SARS, through typhoid [and] we had to isolate. You don't have any choice." 

"So we understand that these situations are like war times. You just have to stay, sit and be patient and know that there's always a rainbow at the end."


Written by Adam Jacobson. Produced by Jeff Goodes. With files from Mike Crawley.

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