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COVID-19 has terrified, but it has also taught, nowhere more than in the places we care for our elders. In the next five days, we will look at what has been done and what needs to be done to keep them safe.
Long-term care was in crisis long before COVID-19 arrived to take the lives of 53 residents at Northwood, Nova Scotia’s largest home for the aged.
Janice Keefe, director of the Nova Scotia Centre on Aging and a gerontology professor at Mount Saint Vincent University, knows because she’s seen it.
“COVID really exposed that our health-care system put so much planning and resources into the hospitals … but there was far less attention allocated to long-term care facilities,” she said.
When experts look for ways to improve outcomes in Nova Scotia’s long-term care sector, one of the gaps that jumps out is the lack of data about the patients — from how many have cognitive impairments to the number with serious health problems such as cancer.
A quick search on the Canadian Institute for Health Information website will turn up data sets that break down patient profiles in long-term care by province and year. Numbers are available for most provinces, but not for Nova Scotia.
Creating one health authority from many was declared a step forward in managing health care in Nova Scotia but it may have resulted in a step back in managing infectious disease outbreaks in the province’s nursing homes.
According to Nova Scotia’s internal review of infection prevention and control in long-term care, staff in charge of infection control in all facilities reviewed were juggling one or more additional roles.
The review, which covers the period from March to September 2020, found that 72 per cent of those in charge didn’t have a certificate or accredited training in infection control. Many of them said their knowledge was not enough during an outbreak and would require support from specialists.
The COVID-19 virus killed 65 Nova Scotians in the first wave of the pandemic last spring.
All but 12 of those people died at one nursing home, Northwood Halifax. On April 18, the deaths of three residents were announced. The toll rose until May 30 when the final death — the 53rd — was reported.
Some died without even seeing family as the building was quarantined.
Northwood CEO Janet Simm said in a recent interview the facility has taken steps to reduce the risk of this ever happening again.
Holly Crooks’ mother didn’t get the COVID-19 virus that devastated the Northwood Halifax nursing home in the spring.
But the impact of those days of isolation and fear on Yvonne Schwartz remain to this day, Crooks said.
“We only could talk to her on the phone and she was really becoming depressed,” Crooks recounted in a recent interview.
“She ... used to get up, put on her dress and her jewelry and her lipstick and go have an active social life,” Crooks said.
“She changed from that to a person who didn’t bother, she saw no reason to even bother to get up and get dressed — she was depressed.”
For Lisa Smith the pandemic started off with a round of bad news.
By early March, it was clear that staff at Glen Haven Manor, a 202-bed long-term care facility in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, could not take vacations. The risk of bringing the COVID-19 virus into Glen Haven was simply too great.
“To be honest, I think we cancelled 26 trips,” Smith, CEO of Glen Haven Manor, told SaltWire in an interview.
We may still call them nursing homes, but long-term care facilities in this country are increasingly not living up to the name.
That’s the finding of a comprehensive policy briefing released by the Royal Society of Canada (RSC) in June.
“Over the past two decades, ratios of regulated nurses to care aides have dropped steadily to contain costs and in the belief that richer staffing mixes were not required,” the authors wrote.