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BC Eases Limits on Care Home Visitors. Families Fear Changes Don’t Go Far Enough

A fraction of our 20,000 long-term care residents have designated essential visitors who can visit three times a week.

Moira Wyton 22 Jan 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Moira Wyton is The Tyee’s health reporter. Follow her @moirawyton or reach her here. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

For the first time in seven months, Jeanette Harper isn’t looking over her shoulder for a long-term care employee trying to rush her out after her weekly 30-minute visit with her 89-year-old mother.

Harper was granted essential visitor status this week after a long battle for the right to visit and help her mother Marguerite Bell in her Eden Gardens, Nanaimo dementia care centre.

“I was thrilled,” said Harper, whose mother has Alzheimer’s. “My mom still knows me behind her mask, so hoping she gets a bit of her spark back.”

Now instead of being limited to 30 minutes per week as her mother’s only allowed social visitor, Harper can spend 90 minutes with her mother three times a week. They’re still confined to Bell’s room but have been enjoying crosswords and looking at family photos together.

But thousands of other families hoping to visit and support long-term care residents are still struggling to be approved under the province’s essential visitor guidelines.

Harper suspects an appeal to the Island Health Patient Care Quality Office and a letter from her lawyer in Vancouver ultimately put enough pressure on the care home, which had denied her application, but she can’t be sure.

Harper said it shouldn’t be so difficult for people to be able to support their loved ones’ mental and physical health during the pandemic.

“It’s very sad that a person has to jump through that many hoops and fight that hard.”

The decision offers a sliver of hope for families of long-term care residents that new and clarified rules on essential visits will allow them precious time with loved ones.

The province released updated guidance on Jan. 7 that clarified the criteria to qualify as an essential visitor and the appeal process if care home managers deny a request.

Currently, less than than 15 per cent of the province’s 20,000 long-term care residents have designated essential visitors, who are allowed to visit multiple times per week and for longer than designated social visitors.

The original health orders placed the burden on families to prove the care home couldn’t provide essential care before they could be approved as a visitor.

And a report from the BC Seniors’ Advocate found that between March and November, about half of all essential visitor applications were rejected by care homes.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said this week that she hopes every resident of long-term care will have the chance to have an essential visitor, but that it has been a “challenge to operationalize.”

But Harper and a group of more than 30 other families say Henry should change the rules to ensure every care home resident is allowed one essential visitor. 

That has been the practice in Ontario since September.

Karen Carteri, the lawyer representing the families, wrote Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix on Dec. 4 saying the province was denying long-term care residents basic rights and putting them at risk.

“The existing isolation and visitation limits in long-term care and assisted living arguably violate the security of the person and liberty rights of residents of care homes and the rights of their families,” Carteri wrote.

Carteri told The Tyee the group had not received a direct response from the government. 

On Dec. 29, they filed a complaint with the Office of the Ombudsperson due to the lack of response.

The Tyee has reached out to the province for comment and did not hear back before publication.

Carteri said most of her clients are now re-applying for essential visitor status under the new rules.

She said they’ll continue fighting until it’s clear that essential visitors are being allowed for all residents.

“The new guidelines are only a meaningful response to the calls for change, including ours, if government ensures the new guidelines are interpreted and implemented in a manner that results in changes for families who have been prevented from visitation for so many months,” she wrote in an email to The Tyee. 

“Too many seniors in long-term care have been denied any such contact at all with loved ones at any point since the outset of the pandemic.”

Harper is grateful to have more time with her mother but doesn’t want others to have to go through the same arduous process as the pandemic continues.

“Our loved ones don’t have forever, they only have now,” she said. “Time is not on their side.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Coronavirus

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