One by one, residents of Ontario’s long-term care homes described the emotional devastation caused by the COVID-19 lockdown to an independent inquiry — and implored the governments to address isolation before the second wave of COVID-19 crashes down.
Lonely, depressed, muzzled and trapped are some of the words the residents used to describe the pandemic to the Long-Term Care COVID-19 Commission by video conference.
“Now when I see these dog cages on TV for stray animals, I see myself as one of these neglected, filthy, and starving-for-love-and-affection little critters,” said Virginia Parraga, who lives in a long-term care home in Toronto.
“I now weep for our human race and mankind.”
The novel coronavirus ripped through the province’s long-term care homes overwhelming the system and killing more than 1,900 residents, as of Thursday. Severe staff shortages, crumbling infrastructure and lack of oversight were some of the factors that contributed to the mass COVID-19 outbreaks in those facilities.
The commission, led by Superior Court Associate Chief Justice Frank Marrocco, will investigate how COVID-19 spread in the long-term care system and come up with recommendations.
Barry Hickling, one of the residents who testified last week, spoke of the long-lasting effect of the lockdown.
“I hope that this will be a tremendous learning experience for all of us, but the pain will not go away. It will stay,” he said.
“It will torment us because of the potential for another wave or potential of someone bringing something into a long-term care home.”
Hickling, who has lived in a long-term care home in Windsor, Ont., for the past 10 years, said the government should take immediate action to fix the problems.
“We are isolated, alone, without family or friends to visit with us,” he said. “I don’t want to go through this ever in my life again. And I pray and hope that, by gosh, if there is another wave, let’s deal with it adequately, appropriately, efficiently, and directly.”
The province eased visitation restrictions several months into the pandemic, but many homes continued with the lockdown, the inquiry heard.
The province recently announced new restrictions on homes in COVID-19 hot spots, limiting visitors to staff, essential visitors and caregivers.
Carolyn Snow, who lives at a long-term care facility in Keswick, Ont., said the isolation felt like living behind bars.
“Except that prisoners are treated better,” said Snow.
She said her sister-in-law, who was staying at another long-term care home, contracted the novel coronavirus and died.
“It went from not being too concerned to being devastated,” Snow said.
The residents also described a litany of problems inside the homes.
Residents could not socialize with their friends, ate soggy meals alone in their rooms and watched endless television, said Sharron Cooke, the president of the Ontario Association of Residents’ Councils who lives at a facility in Newmarket, Ont.
She said the lack of activity and stimulation “left residents dormant and sleeping all the time.”
Several residents said they were left in the dark with minimal information or communication from the homes.
“Just to be left in a room and not know what is past the walls has caused a lot of emotional concern,” Cooke said.
The communication vacuum left vulnerable residents confused and disoriented.
“The residents didn’t know what day it was, what time it was,” Cooke said. “They were looking for nighties at noon because they couldn’t figure out what time of day it was.”
Hickling said staff shortages led to two mixups with his medication, which if he hadn’t noticed, would have left him in a great deal of pain.
Marrocco asked the residents for ideas on how to improve the situation in the homes.
Hickling said the key is to take care of staff, who then in turn can take better care of the residents.
“If they are not being cared for, if they are not taking the swabs and being tested in any other way, that is our lives,” Hickling said. “That is where we live. They bring it in. They take it out. Whatever they are doing was frightening.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 4.
Liam Casey, The Canadian Press