Saskatchewan seniors shouldn’t be isolated any longer because of COVID-19, according to advocates for the older population.
The government has stopped trying to control the spread of COVID-19 in the community and lifted nearly all restrictions in the province. But seniors living in care facilities still face potential lockdowns.
Seniors’ advocates say this isn’t fair.
“The isolation and loneliness has truly been the hardest part for residents,” said Kathleen Spatt, who is president for Saskatchewan’s chapter of the Canadian Association for Retired Persons. Seniors are most vulnerable to the virus and have faced lockdowns where they couldn’t see their loved ones for weeks at a time because of COVID-19 outbreaks.
This remains true, even though people in the rest of the province can technically move freely. There have been 71 outbreaks in long-term care facilities and 44 in personal care homes during the last six weeks, according to government data. The Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) is continuing to use a levelled system of Family Presence and Visitor Restrictions — meaning seniors will still face restrictions.
Spatt said seniors should be protected through rapid testing and mandatory masking. She’s disappointed the proof-of-vaccination policy in SHA facilities was halted, but said regardless of that, seniors want to move forward.
“They’re anxious if they’re fearful, but they’re also looking forward to and hopeful of getting more freedoms.”
Continue masking, rapid testing: advocates
Shan Landry has heard the same message from seniors. She wants policy put in place so that long-term care facilities can no longer restrict family presence.
“We need to ensure that we never again have the instance where — no matter what the infection is — that we separate older people from the people who love them,” said Landry, who is vice president of the Saskatchewan Seniors Mechanism and a member of the Saskatchewan Long-Term Care Network.
“There have been older adults who have been isolated in long-term care for days and weeks on end because of outbreaks who have said quite sincerely, if I could make a choice of having my life shortened but being able to see my grandchildren, I would make that choice.”
Landry isn’t downplaying the severity of the virus for seniors.
As of Feb. 16, there have been 190 deaths among residents in Saskatchewan’s long-term care facilities. The province has had 1,012 deaths total.
Landry said there have also been consequences from keeping loved ones away from seniors, from malnutrition to depression to worsening dementia. She said family visitors are key in supporting seniors and staff.
Staff “do not have enough time built in for them to attend to some of the smaller, personal things that can make a huge difference.” For example, Landry would help her mom pick out an outfit and wheeled her around to socialize.
“The facility was great, but they could only provide the care she needed to help her go to the toilet, bathe and get into and out of bed, ensure her medications were given to her. But all the other things that life is about — the other 23 hours of the day — the staff do not have time to attend to, so families and friends do.”
New standards needed for long term care
Advocates also say the long-term care system needs a complete overhaul and seniors need more representation as the province tries to move beyond COVID-19.
They both want Saskatchewan to rethink its long-term care system.
“Our long-term care facilities need a total rework. They’re broken, they need to be fixed,” Spatt said. She said the majority of homes are simply “warehousing our vulnerable populations.”
Spatt said homes that prioritize independence, patient-centred care and a smaller staff to resident ratio should be priority.
A voice for seniors
Laura Tamblyn Watts worries calls for change like this will be brushed aside as the province moves on.
“With the lifting of all restrictions, we’re very worried that this means that the issues related to older people will get swept under the carpet,” said Tamblyn Watts, who is CEO of Canada’s National Seniors Advocacy Organization. “The government [is] really taking its hands off the wheel.”
Tamblyn Watts said that’s concerning for the older adult population living in group settings. COVID-19 brought waves of death through long term care facilities.
Saskatchewan doesn’t have an independent advocate for seniors.
“We don’t have a strong voice for seniors in [Saskatchewan]. I think that these decisions and how we’ve dealt with COVID in the last two years for older people shows how important having a seniors advocate in the province would be,” Tamblyn Watts said
She noted British Columbia’s seniors’ advocate Isobel Mackenzie, who “reports directly to the government, which has made positive changes.”
Spatt said there’s not a central hub of information of help for seniors, and said she’s seen issues as serious as elder abuse get lost in the current system.
She believes a seniors’ advocate could increase accountability and change. That an office free of government influence could be a hub for senior-related inquiries and dig into systemic issues to inform policy.
“We desperately need that. Give us a voice.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health said the government’s minister responsible for seniors exists to provide “a dedicated voice in government.
They also said the government plans to hire 300 continuing care aides in long-term care and home care over the next three years and “the SHA reports that a little over 100 of the total 108 FTEs [full-time equivalent positions] for 2021-22 have been filled.”
Front-line care staff in long-term care facilities has increased 12 per cent since 2006 and government is trying to recruit workers from the Philippines, according to spokesperson.
Spatt said current efforts aren’t enough and the aging population is only growing. She wants to see more done to address issues facing seniors.
“We haven’t addressed the inadequate facilities and staffing issues,” Spatt said. “Two years going into this, and we still haven’t changed our model. So what are we waiting for? We can start small.”
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