Andy Gillis hasn't seen his 85-year-old mother in three months.
Brenda Gillis has been living at a long-term care home in Halifax since April. She has dementia and moved to the home in the early days of the pandemic after recovering in hospital from a broken pelvis.
"Every time we talk to her, she tells us how much she hates being there. She keeps asking us if we can come to visit her and we explain it to her, but she simply cannot understand it," Gillis told CBC's Information Morning on Wednesday.
While the Nova Scotia government has eased some restrictions on who can visit long-term care homes, Gillis said his family has only been allowed three 30-minute visits in the last five months. He was only able to attend one of those visits.
The problem, said Gillis, is that there aren't enough staff to accommodate visits and available time slots get booked up quickly.
"She's very unhappy, and I'm certain that that's largely because she desperately misses her family and the people she loves," he said.
Last week, the province further relaxed restrictions at long-term care homes, but Gillis and other families in the province say it's not enough. They held a rally in downtown Halifax earlier this week calling on the government to allow families more access to their loved ones.
"As time has gone by and the cases have dropped, the amount of harm being done both emotionally and physically to people in these homes is outweighing the benefit," Gillis said.
He wants the province to allow a designated family caregiver to have greater access to a facility so they can provide care for their loved one.
Easing restrictions isn't easy
But further opening up long-term care homes during a pandemic is complicated, said Michele Lowe, executive director of the Nursing Homes of Nova Scotia Association.
"If you have a resident who is sharing a room, which is the case in the majority of our nursing home, that roommate and that roommate's family may not be comfortable with a family member coming in and spending time with that other resident," Lowe said.
"So this is a challenge administers have to now try to weigh as we move forward with the easing of restrictions."
Her group represents 83 per cent of the licensed long-term care providers in the province.
Lowe said right now the type of visits that can be accommodated vary depending on space and staff at each facility, and that some facilities have only allowed outdoor visits.
Under the current rules, families can now visit outside with up to 10 people at a time. While indoor visits will continue to be restricted to one visitor at a time, there's no longer a limit to how many visitors a resident can put on their list.
Residents are also allowed to leave the facility with a family member to attend non-urgent medical appointments.
But Gillis said at his mother's facility there aren't enough staff to accommodate weekly indoor visits for every family, and his family has had to wait up to three weeks.
Outdoor visits have not worked because his mom doesn't want to go back inside, he added.
"I'm sure if we had been there and had been able to support her, you know, she might have adapted far better, but we weren't able to do that because of the pandemic," Gillis said.
Lowe said some facilities allow loved ones to visit multiple times a week for up to an hour, but homes with more residents can't do that.
"It really depends from facility to facility," she said. "Our nursing homes in this province are working so hard to accommodate visits and make them meaningful for families and residents, but at the same time, we are so restricted with COVID."
Another complication is insurance, she said.
Earlier this summer, long-term care facilities were told that insurance would no longer cover contagions such as COVID-19, although Lowe said her association has been working with the province to address this.
"They have put in place an order that basically prevents any kind of legal action taken against nursing homes and long-term care facilities during this state of emergency," she said. "So it does give facilities a bit of a reprieve, but it's only while the province is in a state of emergency."
'Public health is being very cautious'
A spokesperson for the province said visiting restrictions were put in place at long-term care homes to protect the province's most vulnerable citizens during COVID-19, and that public health will continue to ease restrictions when it's safe to do so.
"Recent outbreaks in long-term care facilities in Manitoba are important reminders of how quickly it can spread," Carole Rankin said in an email to CBC News.
Premier Stephen McNeil said Thursday that there's no question the restrictions have been hard on families feeling cut off from their loved ones, but that "public health is being very cautious."
"Each family's circumstances are different and we'll continue to work with them to try to ensure we can get that interaction more frequently with their loved ones," he told reporters.
McNeil said Dr. Robert Strang, the province's chief medical officer of health, is also looking at ways to support families so they can provide more care to the residents inside.
"This is an issue, quite honestly, that's keeping all of us awake," he said.
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