(BC Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie)

British Columbia’s Seniors’ Advocate, Isobel Mackenzie has issued three recommendations after the results of a survey among long term care and acute care facility residents and their families revealed the heartbreaking impacts of COVID-19 restrictions.

First, Mackenzie wants residents to be able to identify an essential care partner who can visit them frequently — rather than this be determined by the care facility — and those visits should be allowed to take place in the privacy of the residents’ rooms instead of in a common space.

Second, she recommends that in addition to an essential care partner, residents should be allowed to have other social visitors.

Here, Mackenzie offered the example of a resident with a spouse and two daughters. If the spouse is designated as the essential care partner, the two daughters should both be allowed to visit as well, as social visitors.

Allowing more family members to visit their loved ones in care homes is a decision that must be mandated by the provincial health officer.

Finally, Mackenzie’s third recommendation is the creation of a provincial association of long-term care and assisted living resident and family councils, to offer a space for residents and their loved ones to voice their concerns.

Over the course of the past nine months, visits to long term care and acute care facility residents in B.C. have been severely restricted, with most residents still only getting to see one visitor for short periods of time, in a common area that is not private.

“There are literally thousands of residents … who went from seeing loved ones almost daily to seeing no one for four months,” said Mackenzie at an announcement on Tuesday morning.

“Now, for the last four months, many of these visits are 30 minutes, once a week, often outside, sometimes between plexiglass, and usually with someone watching.”

Mackenzie and the Office of the Seniors Advocate launched a survey on August 26 to gauge the impacts on COVID-19 restrictions on long term care facilities.

Since its launch, the survey has garnered over 13,000 responses, mostly from family members of care home residents, but also from the residents themselves and members of the public in general.

Many family members reported physical, emotional, and cognitive declines in their loved ones living in care homes during pandemic.

Findings also revealed a troubling trend: ever since pandemic-induced restrictions stopped people from visiting their loved ones in care homes, the use of antipsychotic drugs — medications used to treat people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, Alzheimer’s, and also used as mood stabilizers and for reducing anxiety — among care home residents has increased by 7 per cent.

At her press briefing, Mackenzie expressed several times that many long term care residents are far more concerned about being able to see their loved ones than they are of contracting the pandemic virus.

“They would rather have COVID than never see their son, their daughter again,” she said.

Mackenzie added that it is important to balance COVID-19 safety restrictions with addressing the mental health needs of seniors at care homes, now that we are nine months into strict restrictions, with the pandemic showing no signs of slowing down.

Over the course of the pandemic, 151 care home residents have died after contracting COVID-19.

However during that same period, over 4,500 residents have lost their lives to other illnesses or conditions.

“This pandemic has upended lives everywhere. However, for most, there is a post-pandemic world that will bring back the freedoms and choices we once took for granted. For residents of long-term care, however, this tomorrow may never come,” reads the report.

“Perhaps that is why we found that most residents of long-term care are not as worried about contracting COVID-19 as we might think. The comments we heard from hundreds of family members indicate there is a greater fear of death from loneliness.”