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Kirwan: An idea for ending COVID isolation for LTC residents

Ward 5 Coun. Robert Kirwan unveils his idea for Designated Essential Visitor who could ensure long-term care residents don’t suffer from loneliness and isolation during a second wave of the pandemic
Ward 5 Coun. Robert Kirwan. (Supplied)

On July 22, for the first time since the middle of March, more than 1,400 residents of the seven long-term care homes in Sudbury were able to welcome visitors into their rooms. 

Professional staff have done a remarkable job under very challenging conditions to keep these residents safe from COVID-19. But because they were confined to their rooms, and thus socially isolated from family and friends in order to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19, many of our older adults in long-term care have been emotionally and physically devastated from the loss of connection with their loved ones. 

This loss of connection may very well have been more damaging to the well-being of our most vulnerable residents than the disease itself.

The devastation continues around the world, but here in Canada, COVID-19 uncovered some glaring issues in long-term care homes, including the shortage of staff and the deplorable conditions that many or our residents are being subjected to. 

We have known about most of these issues for decades. Unfortunately, the residents of long-term care homes have paid the price for the willful blindness and collective denial that has gone on for far too long. More than 80 per cent of all COVID-related deaths across Canada have occurred in long-term care facilities. And now, as we find ourselves in the calm before the storm of the second wave, which is certain to be felt in the fall, we must use the time to put into place a strategic plan that will deal with the challenges that were faced during the past four months. 

We have  an opportunity to make sure that we don’t fail our LTC residents again, but we must take action immediately.

One thing we know for sure is that the staff who provided the medical and personal care for the residents of long-term care homes do not have the energy to go through this same thing again a few months from now. The second wave will likely begin in October and last until next spring. 

Something must be done to make sure that we can properly protect the physical, mental, emotional and psychological well-being of all of our long-term care residents and we need to accomplish this goal without burning out our staff.

We simply cannot allow this to ever happen again. Whether it is for an outbreak of COVID-19, the seasonal flu, or some other form of contagious disease, residents of long-term care homes should never have to experience this level of prolonged physical separation and isolation again. We must come up with a safe and viable strategy, and I am suggesting that a Designated Essential Visitor program may very well be the best solution available.

I would like to see all of the long-term care homes in the City of Greater Sudbury implement a Designated Essential Visitor program for all of their residents. There are variations of this program in place now for some of the residents, but what we need is something that will ensure that all residents of long-term care homes will never feel left alone ever again, even if we need to shut things down and make them stay in their rooms because of another outbreak.

The program I am suggesting would result in every resident of our long-term care homes being given the opportunity to designate one or two essential visitors who will be responsible for providing non-medical care to supplement the services that our professional staff are providing. These Designated Essential Visitors will be given expanded access to the facility, even during an outbreak, in order to assist the existing LTC home staff to meet the emotional, social and physical needs of their residents. A Designated Essential Visitor would be able to visit their resident at any time of the day for any length of time as required to meet the needs of the resident.

A Designated Essential Visitor could be a family member, a person of significance in the life of a resident, or a community volunteer who has provided ongoing regular care and/or support to residents in the home. 

These will be people who have regularly visited and spent time with the resident to provide for their social and emotional needs. They will maintain the connection between the resident and their outside network of family and friends. 

It will also mean that for a good portion of the day the resident will not be left alone. The Designated Essential Visitor can help with feeding and other personal needs during the day when the professional staff may be busy attending to the needs of others. It will also reduce the tremendous workload for staff and ensure that they do not feel the overload that they have felt for the past four months.

I am certain that specific policies and protocols can be established in each long-term care facility so that Designated Essential Visitors will be able to sign in and get outfitted with necessary personal protective equipment in order to help mitigate and prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the home. They would follow a process that is similar to that followed by staff with respect to safety provisions. They would only visit with and provide care to their particular resident in their room or other approved areas of the home. 

Once they go through an appropriate training program approved by the Medical Officer of Health, a Designated Essential Visitor would be able to provide invaluable assistance to staff for residents with cognitive impairments, visual and/or hearing difficulties, and mobility limitations.

The time has come for us to accept that loneliness and social isolation are two of the most significant determinants of health for our older adults. A Designated Essential Visitor will provide emotional support as well as preserve and promote quality of life for residents. 

They will also alleviate basic caregiving tasks for professional staff who will have more time to deal with the complex medical concerns of residents. I am hoping that we can have a Designated Essential Visitor program established in each long-term care home in the City of Greater Sudbury before the second wave hits in the fall.

Robert Kirwan is the city councillor for Ward 5.