Families of B.C. care home residents, advocates celebrate eased visitation rules

·4 min read
Shelley Kayra, pictured with her 85-year-old father, Jim, before the pandemic, says she hasn't been able to visit him at his Fraser Valley care home since visitation restrictions were introduced in March 2020.  (Submitted by Shelley Kayra - image credit)
Shelley Kayra, pictured with her 85-year-old father, Jim, before the pandemic, says she hasn't been able to visit him at his Fraser Valley care home since visitation restrictions were introduced in March 2020. (Submitted by Shelley Kayra - image credit)

Shelley Kayra can't wait for her father to finally meet her newborn child.

For the past year, Kayra, a school teacher in Vancouver, has been barred from seeing her dad, Jim, in his Fraser Valley care home, the result of B.C.'s restrictions on visits to long-term care homes during the pandemic.

The restrictions have prevented Jim, 85, from seeing Kayra's six-month-old daughter, Navi.

The province announced Thursday it would ease its visitation rules, allowing residents up to two guests at a time, plus a child and granting hugs between residents and their loved ones. The rules take effect April 1.

The change means Kayra's dad will get to hold his granddaughter for the first time.

"It's going to be the most amazing experience," she said. "We've been waiting for that for a long time."

Care home advocates and families of residents are celebrating the loosened restrictions, which offer hope after a long year of isolation.

Laura Saimoto waves to her mother from outside the Sunrise of Vancouver retirement home on May 7, 2020.
Laura Saimoto waves to her mother from outside the Sunrise of Vancouver retirement home on May 7, 2020.(Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

B.C. introduced the rules in March 2020 to curb the deadly spread of COVID-19 in care homes. It eased some rules later in the year, including designating a single essential visitor for each resident.

But B.C. families still endured the most restrictive visitation policies compared with long-term care homes anywhere else in the country, said the National Institute on Ageing at Ryerson University.

'We're really, really happy'

Kayra has watched the impact of those restrictions on her father, who suffers from Parkinson's and dementia.

She says he has been quarantined several times in his room for two weeks, each time a new case has been reported in the care home, even after being vaccinated.

"It's very, very challenging on him. His mental health is deteriorating, especially every time he's quarantined. His cognition becomes worse," she said.

"For us to be there and help him, go into his room and help him with his belongings ... it's going to be just so much better."

Terry Lake, the CEO of the B.C. Care Providers Association, said his group his been advocating for weeks for the government to ease visitation restrictions.

More than 90 per cent of staff and residents in long-term care homes were vaccinated during the first phase of B.C.'s immunization rollout earlier this year. Deaths and outbreaks in the facilities have since dropped dramatically.

Lake said he was very happy with the revised guidelines, which were less conservative than he expected.

"I can't even imagine some of the scenes that we're going to have after April 1st," Lake said. "It's going to be joyful."

The Little Mountain Place long-term care centre in Vancouver suffered the province's deadliest outbreak. More than 40 residents at the facility died of COVID-19. Vaccines have been found to prevent severe illness and death.
The Little Mountain Place long-term care centre in Vancouver suffered the province's deadliest outbreak. More than 40 residents at the facility died of COVID-19. Vaccines have been found to prevent severe illness and death.(Ben Nelms/CBC)

Lake said the association would still like to see vaccines mandated for long-term care staff or to have staff tested with rapid testing before they go on shift.

"I still think that that's a bit of a gap there, and we've made that known to the provincial government," he said. "But that could be up to employers to go down that route.

Benefits outweigh risks: PHO

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Thursday she expects the number of outbreaks to increase in long-term care homes, although the vaccines have been found to stop severe illness and death.

"We are at a point where the benefits of having those social connections and interactions outweigh the risks," Henry said.

The impacts of isolation have been pernicious.

A report last fall by the province's seniors advocate, Isobel Mackenzie, surveyed more than 15,000 residents and families.

It found long-term care residents had used more anti-psychotic medications while restrictions were in place. They had also suffered unexplained weight loss and symptoms of depression.

Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie had called for the province to allow more social visits in long-term care homes.
Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie had called for the province to allow more social visits in long-term care homes.(Michael McArthur/CBC)

Mackenzie said Thursday it was a "very, very good day" for long-term care residents and their families.

"Think about that couple who for 70 years years slept six inches apart from each other. And now they've been six feet away from each other, 30 minutes once a week, for the past year," she said.

"This has had a profound impact on people."

Mackenzie said she will be watching to make sure facilities follow the new guidelines, which are in place until June 30, and that cases of severe illness don't spike in care homes.