Long-term care homes in Queens thinking outside the box amid COVID-19

by Kevin Mcbain

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Like elsewhere in the country, long-term care facilities in the Region of Queens Municipality (RQM) have felt the heavy weight of the COVID-19 pandemic.

They've managed to escape the devastating scenarios experienced by some other facilities. However, few would deny the pandemic has shone a spotlight on the shortcomings of current long-term care.

Three such facilities are located in the RQM: Queens Manor in Liverpool; North Queens Nursing Home in Caledonia; and Hillsview Acres in Middlefield. Staff have had to think outside of the box and a lot of times on-the-fly to keep residents safe and engaged during the pandemic.

Despite the challenges, North Queens Nursing Home, for one, hasn't done badly, according to the administrator there, Lisa Gallant.

"We've been faring quite well, as difficult as it has been. There have been some challenges," said Gallant.

However, she added, "The residents are coping, for the most part, better than what I had anticipated."

According to Gallant, the constant change has been stressful for many residents. Once used to visiting in person with family and friends, their social times were reduced to Facetime visits, while group activities were minimized or altered. Recreation and meal times also had to be organized differently.

Gradually, the restrictions are being lifted however, and visitors are now able to visit in person, by appointment, and residents can also leave the facility for off-site visitations with families.

In any case, COVID-19 brought up some glaring infrastructural shortcomings in long-term care..

"It speaks definitely to the importance of private rooms," said Gallant. "Those are obviously infrastructure changes that we can't make happen overnight, but hopefully the government will do something about that."

The nursing home has 43 beds with about half of the rooms singles and the other half doubles. Gallant also pointed to staffing shortages throughout the long-term care industry.

"It was a huge challenge for us. We could have multiple staff off at any given time due to COVID-19 tests or sickness," she said.

Andrew MacVicar, executive director for Queen's Manor, a 61-bed facility located in Liverpool, said they had the same issues with keeping the residents engaged and preventing depression amid the isolation.

"Early on we increased our recreation staffing because we had a real fear of social isolation with the residents. There was a real risk there that they would feel isolated, which leads to mental health and emotional issues," emphasized MacVicar.

Residents and staff had to be matched, or had to stay in their specific wing of the facility for several months and they were not allowed to congregate in large groups.

"Queens Manor is known for its recreation department, its flexibility and creative approach to providing recreation programming," said MacVicar. "That was drawn upon during that time early on. We had to think outside the box and come up with new ways of doing things," he said.

MacVicar echoed concerns about staffing resources. Staff were restricted to one wing or the other, while the facility was unable to draw on the larger pool of substitutes should a staff member not be able to make it to work.

They were grateful when virtual reality goggles arrived in May.

Queens Manor was the recipient of innovation funding from the Department of Health and Wellness in late 2019. With that funding, they had acquired several sets of virtual reality goggles.

"The timing couldn't have been better. They allow residents to travel anywhere in the world and check off items on their bucket list, or walk the sidewalks of their childhood neighbourhoods. It really just opens up the world to them," said MacVicar.

Reinstated in June, the outdoor visitations in a designated space are expected to continue, allowing residents to have more than one visitor and guests to remove their masks while they are seated.

Operated by the RQM, Hillsview Acres Residential Care Facility has 29 beds.

"The facility has adapted well to the safety measures put in place early in the pandemic, and to subsequent changes as restrictions tightened from increasing cases in the spring and lessened as public health relaxed some of the rules in the summer and fall," said the RQM's communications coordinator, Heather Cook.

"Staff were able to maintain the usual high levels for care and family-like atmosphere," she said.

Meanwhile, others are weighing in on the need for change in long-term care facilities which the pandemic brought to the forefront.

"Experts have known for a long time that multi-occupancy rooms and an insufficient number of staff in long-term care are risk factors when it comes to infection control. As we prepare for future waves of COVID-19, we cannot ignore these issues any longer," NDP leader Gary Burrill insisted in a media release.

And on October 1, the province's PC Party released a Dignity for Seniors report on national seniors' day, committing to build at least 2,500 new singles rooms, hire 2,000 more staff and expand housing options for seniors.

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