Outdoor care home visits will boost spirits after pandemic isolation, residents and families say

By | May 21, 2020

Shawna Forester Smith and her husband haven’t been apart this long in 15 years. The separation has taken a toll.

Forester Smith lives with a chronic illness at the Riverview Health Centre, one of many long-term facilities that haven’t allowed most visitors since shortly after the first COVID-19 cases emerged in Manitoba.

Exceptions could be made for end-of-life cases or for compassionate reasons. 

But that’s about to change: provincial health officials signalled Wednesday that people in care homes will soon be able to visit with loved ones outside.

“I definitely think it will boost my spirits,” said Forester Smith, who has been struggling with health problems throughout the isolation.

“I haven’t been feeling well, it hasn’t been easy, so I think it will just keep giving me reasons to keep going and not give up.”

Shawna Forester Smith lives with a chronic illness at Riverview Health Centre in Winnipeg. (Skype/CBC)

Manitoba’s Chief Nursing Officer Lanette Siragusa said plans are underway to relax rules to allow for outdoor visits with up to two guests. Indoor visits will still be limited to exceptions for end-of-life or for compassionate reasons.

Siragusa didn’t provide a firm date for when this can happen, though she said care home operators have been given guidelines and asked to have their own revised visitation rules in place by May 29.

What is clear is that visitors will be screen for symptoms and asked about any recent travel or exposure to known positive cases.

Siragusa said care home operators must also contact family members directly to let them know about the procedures and when they can begin visiting again.

Lanette Siragusa, chief nursing officer of Manitoba Shared Health, said the province is trusting people to continue following public health rules when they visit residents at personal care homes. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Like most Manitobans, care home residents and their loved ones have had to settle for seeing each other on a screen or through a window for months now.

Visits suspended in March 

Health officials called for a suspension of visits to personal care homes in mid-March. Cases were climbing in Manitoba and the threat of an outbreak at a seniors’ home or facility with vulnerable populations became too great to ignore, as did the numerous examples of deadly outbreaks in long-term facilities in other provinces.

Manitoba’s COVID-19 disease curve has flattened significantly since then, leading to the gradual reopening of some segments of the economy in recent weeks, and now care homes.

“Personal care homes in Manitoba have been so far so good, caseload has been excellent so far,” said Raunora Westcott, whose 109-year-old grandmother, Jemima Westcott, lives in a Brandon care home. 

“This whole situation would absolutely freak me out if I was in Quebec, or Ontario or B.C. where some of those personal care homes have been hit very hard,” she said.

Raunora Westcott said she’s staying in touch with her grandmother, Jemima Westcott, using technology during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Raunora Westcott)

She can’t wait to go visit.

“I’m not even sure if my grandmother would’ve heard the news yet — she’s more of a newspaper girl so I am sure it will hit the paper that she has [Thursday],” she said with a laugh.

Isolation forced the centenarian, who was around during the Spanish Flu of 1918, to learn how to FaceTime with her loved ones.

Raunora said she hopes to make a trip out to see her grandmother sometime in June. She plans to approach that reunion cautiously.

“I’m not going to bring her flowers or a book or a card, I am not going to have things that she can touch that I just touched or someone else just touched that may be contaminated in some way,” she said.

“As long as we’re careful, and again following the rules, I think it’s a positive move.”

Focusing on the positives

Forester Smith is also looking up.

After all this time she’d love to have indoor visits, but she recognizes the need to ease back into visits and appreciates that public health officials are approaching this with the safety of vulnerable people in mind.

Moving to Riverview before the pandemic was also a positive move. Prior to that, Forester Smith said she was struggling with her reality; she’d withdrawn from treatment and was on the palliative track.

Members of a palliative unit suggested she instead try out a facility capable of accommodating people with chronic illnesses.

That led her to Riverview where she was able to spend more time with loved ones and has a better quality of life.

“Part of my decision to come here was to spend time with friends and family, so not being able to spend time with friends and family has been really, really hard,” said Forester Smith.

“So, being able to see people again just keeps me motivated to keep going and to keep fighting.”

Shawna Forester-Smith and her husband, Brent. (GoFundMe)

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