Advocates and experts say seniors need a breath of fresh air.
Despite the vast majority of long-term care residents having received their COVID-19 vaccine, many are still not allowed to leave their rooms while their mental and physical health deteriorates, residents and family members say.
At a press conference hosted by the Ontario Health Coalition on Tuesday, one 83-year-old long-term care resident in Newmarket said he did not remember the last time he had been outside. His granddaughter said it was more than a year ago.
“We’re furious and we’re heartbroken for people in this situation," said Natalie Mehra, the executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition. "They need to be able to go out and smell the spring, and have the basic human rights that everyone else in the province has in this pandemic."
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams issued a strict directive to long-term care homes in December, which states, "All non-medical absences need to be approved by the LTCH (long-term care home). In the event of an outbreak in the LTCH, all non-essential absences should be discontinued."
An outbreak is defined as one positive COVID test, among either a resident or staff member in the home.
Mehra called on the government to issue a new directive telling homes to allow residents to go for walks outside.
But no changes appear to be on the way, according to Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton's press secretary.
"Until more people have the opportunity to receive the vaccine, we must continue to be vigilant in following public health guidance, especially as we are seeing the spread of variants of concern," Krystle Caputo said in an email. "The Vaccine Distribution Task Force’s important work is underway, and we will continue to consult with, and act on, the advice of the chief medical officer of health and other health experts."
At a press conference, Premier Doug Ford said he understands residents' concerns, as his mother-in-law is in long-term care, "but, you know, we have to be super cautious."
Jane Meadus, a lawyer at the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly, said the vast lockdown is illegal.
"It contravenes the charter, and this seems to be nothing to them,” she said, referring to provincial officials. "It's interesting, at the testimony at the long-term care commission, when asked questions about other issues related to certain orders that they could have made, they said, 'Oh, we couldn't do that. That would be against the charter.' But they seem to think it's just fine and dandy to detain 150,000 people with no rights at all."
She said the chief medical officer doesn't have the authority to lock down all Ontario long-term care residents — though he and local medical officers can use Section 22 orders under the Health Protection and Promotion Act to impose regional lockdowns on a case-by-case basis.
Meadus compared the plight of seniors to prisoners, saying the lockdowns go against the Nelson Mandela rules that state isolating prisoners for more than 15 days in a row is a form of torture.
Residents were optimistic in February, said Sandra Caleta, a spokesperson for advocacy group Voices of LTC. Case numbers were declining and seniors were getting vaccinated. But more than a month later, nothing has changed.
"In some cases, family members have become suicidal just because their mental health has declined so much," she said.
Caleta noted that the Ontario Science Table and the Public Health Agency of Canada have said the risk of COVID infection is far lower outside than inside.
This. Is. Different. 6/7. We CAN do more: BE OUTSIDE. Risks are far lower. If you can take it outside, pls do. While outside: stay 2m apart, mask if you need to be closer. (Always mask if you must meet or work w/ others inside). #COVID19Ontario https://t.co/acV1xJooBj
— COVIDScienceOntario (@COVIDSciOntario) March 29, 2021
Long-term care residents and their family members said the seniors are being treated like prisoners.
Alfred Borg, an 83-year-old resident of Southlake Residential Care Village in Newmarket, said he loves the home but hates not being able to leave his room.
“So we sit all day long. We just sit in our rooms, wasting away, receiving food served in styrofoam containers with plastic forks and spoons,” he said.
“It is not enough just being alive. We need better quality of life."
When Mehra asked how long it's been since he's been outside, Borg sighed.
"I can't even remember. A long time ago," he said.
His granddaughter, Kim LaRiviere, said it was more than a year ago.
Borg said he couldn't remember when the last time he had a shower was, either. LaRiviere said it was five or six months ago.
Michelle Morriseau, whose mother is in a long-term care facility in Thunder Bay where there are no resident COVID cases and one staff case, said it's also been a year since her mother has been allowed been outside, except for four hours for her husband's funeral.
"With her dementia, did she understand it? We don't know," Morriseau said through tears, adding that her mother was isolated for nine days upon her return.
“My mom is so different when she’s outside. She’s alert. She's bright. She’s looking at everything," she said. "How can you take that away from an elder?"
Also speaking through tears, one woman said her grandmother, who lives in a long-term care home in Markham, can't leave her room since there's one COVID case in the home, even though she's been vaccinated.
"My grams has a wish just to sit outside, and sit six feet away from us and enjoy a tea," said Kaitlyn, who spoke under a pseudonym for fear of retribution from the home. "Or maybe watch my two-year-old play in the distance on the abundance of accessible and open green space that her home has the luxury of sitting."
"It is incomprehensible that while 50 people across the street can now dine indoors, unmasked, and eat a steak dinner, my grammy remains confined to her 12-by-12 bedroom for the thirteenth month in a row, denied the right to simply sit outdoors and feel the sun on her face."
Palliative care physician Dr. Amit Arya said long-term care residents' quality of life is incredibly important, as lonely seniors are more prone to cognitive and physical decline, including susceptibility to infection.
“I mean, what was the point of getting the vaccine if they couldn't start to enjoy life again?” he said. "I think that these are very reasonable expectations, and to be honest, they should've started a month ago."
The government has been slow to act because it has valued the input of the long-term care lobby, much of which is private, over science, Mehra charged.
"It's our belief that a lot of this is because the homes are severely understaffed, and it's for the convenience of the homes. They don't want to have to staff up. They haven't staffed up. And they need staff in order to facilitate the residents going out, and at this point, it's easier to keep them in their rooms," Mehra said.
Arya said British Columbia is heading in the right direction, while the Ontario government stalls. The province is allowing things like hand-holding and hugging, with restrictions, he said.
"I work in long-term care homes, where the essential caregivers have been vaccinated, and the resident has been vaccinated, and they can't touch each other. And that just doesn't make any sense," he said.