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Posts Tagged ‘long term care’

As I was on my daily constitutional today (amidst polar winds and swirling snow), I passed a lengthy line of men outside the new artisanal chocolate shop in my neighbourhood. As I moved onto the street to maintain physical distance between the shoppers and myself, I found myself thinking about all the mothers who will face Mother’s Day during this extraordinary pandemic, COVID-19.

I thought about mothers of children with disabilities who are without the essential service of the personal support workers who come to their home every day to help care for their children. I thought about homeless and under-housed women who are struggling to stay healthy and warm without the comforts of a home and family. I thought about the mothers and grandmothers who will spend Mother’s Day alone, unable to enjoy the physical delights of hugs and kisses even if they’re lucky enough to live in the same city or town. I thought of the essential health care workers – physicians, nurses, personal support workers and others – who will spend Mother’s Day on the front-lines of the battle against COVID-19 – separated from their families and risking their lives to save others. I thought of the mothers and grandmothers in long-term care facilities, who are unable to see or touch or talk with their daughters and sons and grandchildren.

For those women in long-term care facilities, their lives on this Mothers’ Day are particularly precarious. The pandemic has revealed the appalling conditions in long-term care homes across this country, where COVID-19 has killed so many elderly, vulnerable people. Reports of people dying alone, gasping for breath, calling out for help, are unbearably devastating, as families wait outside, hoping for news, for a glimpse of their loved ones at the window. These women are our mothers and grandmothers. Despite our best intentions, they may well be us in the not so distant future, no matter how well we have planned.

The plight of these women and men in long-time care reveals the tremendous lack of regard our society holds for the elderly. It is the result of decades of neglect, under-funding, and greed in a society that values expediency and money above human lives.

It is my hope on this Mother’s Day that we will wake up to the tragedy that is happening to our elders in long term care. I hope it will remind people of the invaluable work that is performed by personal support workers every single day. Perhaps it will force our governments to ensure that these workers receive a living wage commensurate with the essential human service that they perform. And I hope it will remind us all of the tremendous toll COVID-19 is taking on the most vulnerable people in our society.

This Mother’s Day I will remember my mother who died nearly 14 years ago, who was fortunate to be cared for in the final years of her life by personal support workers in a small facility where she was seen as a whole person in spite of the ravages of a brain aneurysm. I will think of how fortunate I am to see my daughter and grandchildren at a distance of 6 feet and my younger daughter and her 14 month old daughter via the wonders of technology.

And though it seems insignificant in the face of this pandemic, I will send donations to the services that support mothers so that they too can survive these challenging times.

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Last weekend I had the privilege of accompanying my aunt on the final days of her life. Long burdened with Alzheimer’s disease,  Aunt Ruth turned 94 on Friday, accompanied by a staff member who had stayed late Thursday night so she could be the first to wish her a happy birthday. On Saturday night at 11 p.m. she took her last breath, with another staff member by her side.

One of the longest residents of Fenelon Court, the long term care residence where she spent the final years of her life, Ruth was loved by the staff, who called her Ruthie, her childhood name I had only heard in family stories. She was the youngest of my father’s five siblings and the last to leave. She was spunky, spirited, outspoken, generous, and loving.

When we arrived from Ottawa on Friday, she was somnolent, no longer responding to visitors or staff. I had brought my ukulele with me on the trip, and knowing that hearing is the last sense to leave, I set myself up by her bedside and began to play. Whether she could hear me I’ll never know, but I like to think that the music of Leonard Cohen (Hallelujah) and the gentle words of The Water is Wide provided her with comfort on her journey.

As I played, staff came in and out of the room to check on Ruth, and to offer drinks or food to me. Each time they entered, I was struck by their gentle caring and familiarity with “Ruthie.”

“She’ll do it in her own time,” one nurse commented. “You always have, haven’t you Ruthie.”

On Saturday we spent much of the day with Ruth, giving my eldest sister a much-needed respite from the long days she had been spending by her side. Once again, I sang, shared birthday cards and stories with Ruth, reminders of the love that surrounded her. When we finally went back to our hotel at 9, one of the nurses reassured us that she would sit with Ruth. She remained at her side until she died.

The next morning we returned with my sister Judy to begin cleaning our Ruth’s room. Ruth’s body was still there, and I was glad for my years of hospice volunteering that helped it seemed perfectly natural. As I remarked on the volume of clothes in her closet, I couldn’t help but notice their beautiful condition – another tribute to the careful attention of the staff.

As we prepared to walk out with the people from the funeral home, a staff member lay a quilt over her body, and as we walked slowly to the front door, staff members throughout the building lined the halls, a gesture of respect I recognized from my own hospice.

Though I am writing this post to honour Aunt Ruth, I am also honouring the amazing staff at Fenelon Court. When I knew she was in a long term care facility, I had an image of hallways filled with patients sleeping slumped over in wheelchairs, a certain smell permeating the building. I had witnessed these scenes in other long term care facilities, and I was dreading seeing my aunt in such a place.

Fenelon Court could not have been farther from those expectations! The building is bright and clean, the patients engaged in activities where possible, and attended to with care in every encounter I witness. “We are their family,” one nurse told me. “Often they have a son or daughter who rarely visits. We are here every day and we love them. They’re our family too.”

Perhaps it’s because the facility has only 67 residents – and it is designed in pods so each area is relatively small and contained. Perhaps it’s because it is located opposite an elementary school and children often visit the centre, sharing drawings, Easter activities, and joy with the residents. Perhaps it’s because it’s located in a small town, a place where community really matters. But I think there’s something more – something I can’t quite put into words – beyond respect, dignity, caring, and love. That’s what I experienced with my aunt last weekend. And for that I am enormously grateful.

Fenelon Court

fenelon_overview

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One of the many fascinating things about the International Palliative Care Conference was hearing about the huge range of ways in which hospice volunteering can take place. St. Christopher’s House, for example, the first “modern” hospice, established by Cicely Saunders in 1967, is now shifting its emphasis from home visiting services in the community to providing more services within St. Christopher’s House itself. Other communities, especially those in rural areas, are finding that many families need home visiting services and volunteers, as they do not want to be far from home when the end of life arrives.

With the dramatic aging of the population, more and more people are dying in nursing homes and long term care facilities. While, in the past, nursing homes often sent patients to the hospital for their final days (or hours), increasingly residents are dying in the place where they were living. Clearly, this is a place where hospice volunteers can play an important role, in caring for and accompanying people in their final days. I’m excited to be meeting with a long-term care facility in Ottawa in the coming weeks, to talk about setting up a palliative care program, including a volunteer component.

There are so many opportunities for us to support dying people and their families.

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