Last week my sister died. She has been in a long-term care facility since December 2019.
Her residency in a facility means we have not been able to see her beyond weekly Skype meetings facilitated by a bubbly young woman at her home. We were thankful to have those meetings. The downside to them is we only saw her from the neck up. Some visits were better than others. Because she was not technically proficient, I wonder how she and others in her generation comprehend the technology utilized for a digital visit? Did they enjoy it or were they confused by it?
The pandemic prohibitions also meant residents like my sister lived without touch. Certainly she was cared for by staff. And as kind as they were to her, theirs is a type of industrial touch. They were paid to touch her. It was professional. It was not the touch by and of those you love and who love you. For me that translates into a vacancy or void, which is amplified by the extreme intimacy with end of life.
While we are saddened by her death, we are grateful to the facility doctor who engaged in extensive conversations with her husband and me. His candor and time helped our family – her daughters, husband, myself and an aunt – to understand her condition and come to terms with her sudden passing.
Thanks to these conversations I was comfortable that he knew her as a person and not just a collection of conditions. When questioned he didn’t have to go back to his files, he knew the answers because he knew her.
But how many other families have had this level of involvement, commitment and communication?
The COVID-19 pandemic is an extraordinary event. Aside from those who were medically stricken with it is the emotional and psychological toll taken on long-term care residents who grew ill and sometimes died without the support of their loved ones. There is the helplessness of family members kept at a distance and who had to rely on third-hand reports from exhausted workers. (This is compounded by the fact that people have different communication skills.)
And then there is the daily fear of infection. Sadly a few facilities seemed to be ground zero for COVID-19 related deaths in Nova Scotia. Nova Scotia has 65 deaths (as of August 31, 2020) from COVID-19. Of those, 53 deaths were in one facility.
I don’t believe that cluster of deaths were malicious or represent a lack of caring on the part of the management or staff. But were they fueled by budgetary belt-tightening or indifference to recommendations? I believe we must have a full, public inquiry into what happened. A review isn’t sufficient. We need a process that finds fault and attaches specific changes to deadlines. A review allows those who have failed to act in the past to continue on their leisurely path to a comfortable retirement. That is not acceptable.
Nova Scotia is the province of Westray. A report from the public inquiry into the deaths of 26 Westray miners said the mine was mismanaged, miners’ safety was ignored, and poor oversight by government regulators led to the disaster. Poor oversight by government, unclear responsibilities, confusion are conditions which seem to repeat in this province. That is why I believe the Advocates for the Care of the Elderly (ACE), who have worked for over 14 years to bring the issues in long term care to governments’ attention, are right to ask for a full, public inquiry into the pandemic.
Outside of war, the loss of so many seniors in long-term care is the greatest collection of deaths in provincial history. If you study medical history very few of the last 100 years have not had a epidemic or pandemic. A full-on inquiry would put us in a better position for future viruses and medical events.
A call from ACE for a public inquiry:
The ACE Team
Halifax B3V 1C1
Call for a Northwood Inquiry
August 26, 2020
Hon. Stephen McNeil
Premier of Nova Scotia
Hon. Randy Delorey
Health and Wellness Minister
The purpose of this letter is to firmly state the necessity for an inquiry instead of a simple review, regarding the loss of fifty-three lives at Northwood Long-Term Care facility during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year.
It is an insult to expect the resident families and the people of Nova Scotia to accept they will receive transparency, closure or any sense of justice. Those families and the people of Nova Scotia trusted that our loved ones were in safe conditions. We learned otherwise in what is one of the largest non-war death tolls in provincial history.
Since 2006 the ACE Team has been meeting with various provincial governments advocating for a secure, compassionate environment for long-term care residents, particularly the elderly where life should be added to years instead of a place to die. Since that time we have been shown promises of long term plans to make that happen but none have ever materialized.
Since 2006 we have met with every Premier, Health and Wellness Ministers and deputy ministers and their bureaucrats stating there are plans in the works to improve the quality of Long-Term Care.
After the creation of a Conservative Ten-Year Long-Term Care plan that was to be completed by 2014, we have had nothing but freezes and cuts for Long-Term Care funding. The first-year policy of this of this government clearly stated, “No more money for bricks and mortar for new long-term care beds.”
While economists have praised this government’s austerity measures and back-to-back surpluses, they have forgotten or over-looked that $8 million came from cuts in staffing and salary freezes to low paid front line workers in Long-Term Care as well as reductions in food budgets which have left those in care dining on $5-a-day meal budgets.
No more money for bricks and mortar for new long-term care beds have led to multiple occupancy rooms and is the direct result of the 53 deaths at Northwood because infected COVID patients were being housed with non-infected patients.
The past seven years have shown steep declines in our health care system with the most noticeable declines happening in Long-Term Care, to the point, where advocates, unions and the public have been declaring health care in a crisis, resulting in ER hallway medicine and doctors begging for more long-term care beds. We have also seen the waitlist for people without a doctor grow to 150,000.
Since 2016 The ACE Team has been witness to;
- The promise of five-year long-term Care Plan that has yet to come to fruition.
- A $250,000 Dementia Strategy – which never materialized.
- A $2.2M Expert Advisory Panel Report where only five of 22 recommendations have been implemented which have had no improvement for long-term care.
- Last, because of the COVID-19 outbreak, we have a long-term care review for the entire Provincial Long-Term Care System going on behind the Northwood Review.
The ACE Team feels after fourteen years of meetings with governments and promises of Five-Year Long-Term Care plans, a Dementia Strategy and a dismissed $2.2M Expert Advisory Panel Report that a simple review will reveal nothing and not rebuilt trust and respect for the system. NOW is the time for an inquiry to bring closure and a sense of justice to the families of the 53 dead as well as being foundational to create an environment that reflects human dignity for the care of the elderly and add life to years.
Chair, The ACE Team
Advocates for the Care of Elders