Peg Montgomery has seen her 92-year-old father twice since the pandemic began. He's living at a West Vancouver care home with severe dementia, and Montgomery lives in Ladysmith on Vancouver Island.
Her local sister has been the designated visitor, making weekly trips to the long-term care (LTC) home, but for Montgomery, the experience has been frustrating and upsetting.
"When COVID first hit, I could only see him through a window, and the window had checkered glass, so he couldn't really see me. He couldn't hear me," she said.
Last summer Montgomery was allowed to visit her father in the same room, but at a distance.
Beginning Thursday, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) is changing its rules for LTC visitors, significantly relaxing certain rules, including the one that banned any contact with residents.
Now family and friends can touch their loved ones, while taking health precautions like wearing a mask and sanitizing hands.
And for people like Montgomery who weren't the single designated visitor, the rule changes mean they can easily book visits and spend time with their parents.
"I'm really excited about seeing him. And you know, he's getting on. It could be one of the last times I'll see him, but just seeing him and being with him will be wonderful," she said, adding that she booked the earliest visit time she could — Thursday at 10:30 a.m.
'She means the world to me'
Leah McSween has been in a similar situation; her sister has been the regular visitor, and while McSween has had daily phone calls with her 97-year-old mother who's living at Lynn Valley Care Centre, she hasn't seen her in 14 months.
"I told her, 'I won't be calling you tomorrow, I'll be coming over to see you,'" she said on Wednesday.
"I pray to God faithfully, and I've said so many prayers that I get to see Mom again before she passes away, you know, so I guess my prayers have been answered," said McSween. "She means the world to me."
For LTC operators, the new rules are a welcome change as well.
"It's going to make a huge difference to the workers, the people that live here, and of course the family members," said Dan Levitt, executive director of Tabor Village in Abbotsford and adjunct professor in gerontology at SFU.
Tabor Village was among the hardest hit long-term care homes, with an outbreak that left 150 residents and staff with COVID-19. Twenty-six people died.
But now, according to Levitt, the vaccination campaign is going reasonably well, and most residents and staff have had their shots. He said there are now no known active COVID-19 cases at the facility.
He said he's looking forward to families taking their loved ones out for a walk, a drive, or even a sleepover if they like, but he says it's the return of the human touch that will make the most difference for some residents.
"Imagine you live alone, you're spending most of your time in one bedroom. During outbreaks you're spending weeks, sometimes months on end in one bedroom," said Levitt. "Finally someone comes into your room and touches you for a reason that isn't a medical or clinical reason."
Visitors might notice decline in loved ones
Provincial seniors' advocate Isobel McKenzie cautioned that there is a high likelihood visitors will notice a physical and cognitive decline in their loved ones.
She said any changes would not have been potentially as shocking had they been able to visit over the past year, as they tend to happen gradually.
"It might seem very dramatic, so I think people have to be prepared for that," said Mackenzie, speaking Thursday on CBC's The Early Edition.
Under the new rules, two adults and a child can visit at the same time and there are no longer restrictions on frequency or duration of visits.
Visits need to be booked in advance and tracked for contact tracing purposes. There are still regular COVID-19 protocols like screening for illness, mandatory mask use and hand sanitation.
Visits at a residence will be suspended if there's an outbreak, according to the BCCDC.
Terry Lake, B.C. Care Providers Association CEO, is asking visitors to work diligently with LTC operators to keep the facilities virus free.
"Please work with the care home operator to schedule your visit time, and observe rules meant to protect all residents, staff and visitors," said Lake in a statement.
"We recognize the profound grief and loss experienced by families with loved ones in care over the past year. Staff have been working tirelessly to keep residents safe and want to ensure that continues to happen," added Lake.
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