Some reports say that 75% of the deaths from COVID-19 occurred in long-term residences for seniors. I don’t find that hard to believe. Here is Saskatchewan there have been 130 deaths so far this year, 25% of those deaths occurred during one recent outbreak in one residence. I believe everyone did the best they could with the situation as they understood it, but resources and personnel have been overwhelmed by the spread of an invisible attacker.
At the beginning of the pandemic there was a fear that hospitals would be overwhelmed. In some cases hospitals were able to make more beds available by transferring elderly people to long term care homes. In retrospect, that does not seem to have been a good idea. Here are some of the problems that have been identified.
- Many of the larger homes had multi-patient rooms, up to four beds in one room. When one person in that room became ill there were no private rooms available to isolate them. You could draw a curtain around the bed with the sick person, but the virus spread by airborne particles over, under and around that curtain.
- Most homes had a large contingent of part-time workers. In larger urban centres that often meant that many of those workers were employed at more than one home. When the virus arrived in one home those workers carried it to the other home where they worked before they realized they had been infected.
- Elderly people often do not present the same symptoms of COVID-19 as younger people, leading to delays in diagnosis.
- Long-term care homes were closed to visitors. Workers who were unknown to the patients were brought in to replace those who were sick. Cutting off the elderly from family, faith communities and familiar caregivers caused loneliness, confusion, and fear. Those emotions have physical consequences.
With all good intentions, we have largely botched the care of the most vulnerable among us. It will serve no good purpose to find people to blame this on, but perhaps some lessons can be learned for the future. One lesson may be that bigger is not always better. Perhaps the ultimate lesson is that we are all to blame because we thought it was a good idea to separate the elderly into large institutions where their physical needs could be provided, which has resulted in isolating ourselves from them.