Two Prince Edward Island families are making an impassioned appeal for a public inquiry to look at the state of long-term care in the province, after the deaths of elderly relatives living in private care homes.
Representatives of the families appeared Tuesday at a news conference organized by the Green Party of P.E.I.
And they didn't hesitate to say they believe the care their relatives received amounted to neglect.
The facilities involved were not named.
Jean Cutcliffe's aunt was admitted to long-term care in November of 2019. Cutcliffe's voice shook on Tuesday as she described receiving a phone call nine months later, as her aunt lay in bed at the care home.
"She said everything was dark … She couldn't see. She couldn't open her eyes."
Cutcliffe immediately called the nurse on duty at her aunt's unit, who said the elderly woman was fine. Cutcliffe had to insist she be taken to hospital for treatment.
It didn't happen overnight. Basically, in my opinion, it was a case of long-term neglect. — Jean Cutcliffe
What she learned horrified her.
"She was so dehydrated her eyelids were stuck to her eyeballs."
Cutcliffe's aunt was also suffering from a urinary tract infection, one of several the family says she suffered while in care. They say the catheters used on the woman were not changed often enough.
"My question is … how could a nursing home that is supposed to be providing care allow this to happen? You know, it didn't happen overnight. Basically, in my opinion, it was a case of long-term neglect."
After her aunt was released from hospital, the family moved her to another care home — after a staff member at the first home suggested it might be bad for her health if she returned.
The woman died a month later.
Broken arm led to long-term care
The second family was represented at the news conference by Patricia Thorburn Maneta. She normally lives in Greece but her sister Jacqui Chaisson lives on P.E.I.
Their 88-year-old mother also lived here. They say she was a vibrant, independent person until she broke her arm last year.
She had to move into long-term care when she got out of hospital.
"Her first night she was told to soil herself and they would clean her up when they had time," said Thorburn Maneta. "And my mother told family this the next day with tears in her eyes. She was chastised for ringing the bell for assistance."
Thirty-six days — that is how long it took our very vital mother to be stripped of her dignity, her independence, and finally her life. - Patricia Thorburn Maneta
Cutcliffe said her relative was also told on the first night in a care facility that no one would help her use the bathroom at night; rather she was told that's why she was wearing a diaper.
Thorburn Maneta said her mother was supposed to have been placed in a room with a wheelchair-accessible bathroom, but that wasn't the case.
Within days her mother had been separated from her wheelchair, with staff saying the hallways of the facility weren't wide enough to accommodate it.
Essentially bedridden, the woman began a rapid, steep decline in her condition, according to family.
"Thirty-six days — that is how long it took our very vital mother to be stripped of her dignity, her independence, and finally her life," said Thorburn Maneta. "Thirty-six days."
Call for inquiry
Both families say they were told public health had launched investigations into what had happened, but they never heard the results of those investigations.
That's one of the reasons why they want a full public inquiry into long-term care. They are backing whatever process will bring the maximum attention to what they consider systemic problems.
Cutcliffe said P.E.I. needs to have "uniform standards of care" when it comes to staffing and training for both government-run and private facilities.
She also said there should be "surprise inspections" of long-term care facilities. Currently, the province says, private facilities are told the month an inspector will visit but not the specific day.
"When COVID protocols were at their tightest and visits prohibited, some notice was given to allow safe access." a government spokesperson told CBC News in an email Tuesday.
Government-run facilities aren't part of P.E.I.'s inspection regime, but rather go through an accreditation process every few years.
A recent review from government found public and private long-term care homes on P.E.I. "operate in markedly different ways," which could lead to "different access to services, care experiences for residents and work-life experiences for staff members."
Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker was also making the case for a public inquiry on Tuesday, saying it's the only way to compel private long-term care facilities to release documents and answer questions to which Islanders need answers.
"If we say that we love and value our seniors, we need to have public policy and we need to have levels of care in our long-term care facilities that reflect that, that reflect Island values," he said.
"This isn't about a witch hunt; this is about trying to improve a system."
King won't rule out inquiry
The province recently announced an external review by a panel of outside experts, focusing mostly on the impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on the long-term care sector on P.E.I.
Most of the province's COVID-related deaths have been among residents of such facilities as outbreaks took hold.
Premier Dennis King, speaking to CBC News from B.C. where he was attending a meeting of the Council of the Federation, said he wouldn't commit to a public inquiry before the external review has been done and delivered to cabinet.
The emailed statement from the provincial spokesperson said members of that external panel "were selected based on their expertise, knowledge and lived experience with the long-term care sector. The panel will have the ability to access disease specialist and epidemiologists as they carry out their work."
In an interview King told CBC News: Compass host Louise Martin: "I think everybody wants to make sure we're doing the very best that we can when it comes to the delivery of long-term care for those citizens and people who are most vulnerable — but are also some of our most important.
"They have paved the way for us to get here, and we want to make sure that they have the best quality of life."