Amid the surge in cases of the COVID-19 variant Omicron, B.C. reinstated visitation restrictions for long-term care homes at the beginning of the new year. Under the current restrictions, residents are theoretically eligible to designate someone as their essential visitor — someone who can see them at the care home and provide much-needed support. The reality, however, is starkly different: Each care home is responsible for determining who should receive essential visitor status, and much of the support provided by family caregivers is not recognized as essential in the provincial guidelines.
Across Canada, January is recognized as Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. The Alzheimer Society of B.C. is running a campaign that says, “Don’t change. Even if they do.” The campaign is meant to inspire British Columbians to reflect on how they will continue to show up for the people in their lives who are living with the disease after two years of isolation and upheaval. Unfortunately, many people in B.C. can’t do this because their loved one lives in long-term care and the care provided by family members isn’t considered essential.
In recent days, news outlets have shared heartbreaking stories of people directly affected by these visitation guidelines. But for every person who shares their experiences publicly, there are many more who are also affected. According to the Office of the Seniors Advocate, more than half of all applications for essential visitor status were denied in 2021, and less than 25 per cent of all residents of long-term care have an essential visitor.
The Alzheimer Society of B.C. connects with families throughout the province every day. We’ve heard about the impact isolation has had on residents living with dementia — the decline in their mental, physical and emotional health, much of which can never be reversed. We’ve heard about the guilt, grief and anxiety people have experienced from not being able to provide the care and love they know their loved one needs — a smile, a kind word, a reassuring touch. We’ve heard about the limitations of technology, like tablets and video calls, for people in the later stages of dementia.
Our community members have told us about the incredible challenges they’ve faced trying to get essential visitor status: people who have applied and been denied, granted temporary status only, or told they won’t have access unless their loved one is reaching end of life. In light of this, some community members have made the difficult decision to pull their loved one out of care, regardless of the valid reasons behind why they made the transition in the first place.
We can’t ignore the realities of the current pandemic. But we must balance protection against COVID-19 with the protection of residents’ overall health and quality of life. At this point in the pandemic, we have various protective layers in place to curb the spread of COVID-19: vaccination mandates, rapid tests and masks significantly decrease the risk of outbreaks due to a family member’s presence.
Recently, the province of B.C. indicated it is working to introduce social visitors into care homes. But this isn’t enough. Social visits stop in the event of an outbreak, even though residents’ need for continued, ongoing support doesn’t. We already know that the Omicron variant has led to more outbreaks and has placed an even greater strain on healthcare workers. Ensuring that every person in long-term care has an essential visitor means that staff don’t have to fill the role of family and friends in their absence.
In an ideal world, someone in care would be asked automatically to designate one essential visitor, who would always be welcome to see them — regardless of future COVID-19 or other outbreaks. No matter who that person is — a partner, an adult child, a friend, a paid support worker — they should not need to prove themselves “essential.”
As we approach Jan. 18 — when the current restrictions are due to be reassessed — all eyes must be on this issue. On Jan. 27, I’ll be talking about the essential role that families play with B.C. seniors advocate Isobel Mackenzie at a virtual event called “Opening the door: Why families are essential to care” and I invite all British Columbians who care about this issue to take part in the conversation. If you’d like to register for the event or learn more about how you can advocate for people living with dementia, visit alzbc.org/AAM2022.
Jen Lyle is the chief executive officer of the Alzheimer Society of B.C. Prior to joining the Alzheimer Society of B.C., she was the founding CEO of B.C.’s continuing care workplace safety association, SafeCare BC.