After nearly 70 years together, this couple fears they'll be forced to spend the rest of their lives apart

Jim and Theresa Woolfey have been married for almost 69 years, but have been forced to live apart for the last 18 months. (Submitted by Marilyn Gould - image credit)
Jim and Theresa Woolfey have been married for almost 69 years, but have been forced to live apart for the last 18 months. (Submitted by Marilyn Gould - image credit)
Submitted by Marilyn Gould
Submitted by Marilyn Gould

While the Newfoundland and Labrador looks for ways to fix a provincial health-care system that separates elderly spouses in long-term care, a St. John's couple — married nearly seven decades ago but now living apart — worries time is running out.

In February, the provincial health minister announced a review of personal and long-term care homes, including facilities' inability to accept couples who require different levels of care — like Jim and Theresa Woolfrey.

The Woolfreys, both 86 years old, were married nearly 69 years ago. He needs Level 1 care, for people who are independently mobile but need some help, and she needs Level 3 care, for people who require at least three hours of supervision over a 24-hour period.

They lived together until about 18 months ago.

"My wife got sick and she qualified for Level 3. I don't. That's the story," said Jim Woolfrey. "You know, we lived together for almost all of our lives and right quick, we're separated."

Newfoundland and Labrador is struggling with a shortage of long-term care beds and workers to provide care. It means long-term care facilities that provide higher levels of care can't also accept someone like Jim, who doesn't require as much help. So the Woolfreys are forced to live apart.

Jim visits Theresa almost every day but they still spend most of their days in separate homes.

"I find it very hard but she finds it even harder than I do," he said.

"Every evening when I leave she says, 'Oh my, can't you stay?' and she's almost in tears then. It's hard to leave."

Mark Quinn/CBC
Mark Quinn/CBC

Their daughter, Marilyn Gould, is fighting for a way to bring her parents back together.

"It's heartbreaking. It really is. I mean, how many couples reach the age of 86 and both have their faculties that they can talk to each other and enjoy each other's company but then they have to separate?" she said.

Health Minister Tom Osborne says short-term changes are coming.

"This is a subject that I absolutely want to get resolved. In the very near future we'll have more to say on how we can accommodate spouses as opposed to separating spouses," he said.

Mark Quinn/CBC
Mark Quinn/CBC

Osborne suggested there may be changes coming to admission criteria at care facilities but offered no details.

Too late?

Gould, a retired nurse, worries a solution will come too late for her parents.

"The problem for Mom and Dad is time. Time is not on their side." she said.

"My fear is that they will not get to spend at least some time together in their last little bit of time that they have. It seems totally unfair, you know — someone works all their lives, they pay into taxes, they get into these homes and the government can do whatever they want with them."

Opposition says government taking too long

The provincial Opposition's health critic says it's unacceptable that the provincial government hasn't introduced legislation to ensure elderly couples remain together, as has happened in other provinces, including in Nova Scotia.

Other provinces created legislation to ensure elderly couples remain together. The provincial Opposition's health critic says it's unacceptable that nothing's been done in Newfoundland and Labrador yet.

mark Quinn/ CBC
mark Quinn/ CBC

"We have an aging population and we've seen this coming for a long, long time and to get to this point where we don't have measures in place to address this. There's no excuse for it. There really isn't," said Opposition Progressive Conservative Party MHA Paul Dinn.

The provincial government has said in the past that the shortage of beds is the problem.

"I think it would be very difficult to legislate something we couldn't deliver," said then Health Minister John Haggie in March 2022.

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