VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — An ex-RCMP officer and resident at a Vancouver long term care facility for adults with complex needs says caring for people with drug addictions and those with severe physical disabilities in the same space isn’t working.
Sixty-eight-year-old William (Bill) Salhany alleges he, other residents, and staff at George Pearson Centre in Vancouver have been bullied by residents who are dealing with drug addictions since long before the pandemic.
“It’s really tough being in a wheelchair let alone being bullied. It’s a tough job we are just trying to survive and when you have somebody bullying you it really, really can put you into a state where you can have medical problems sneak up on you,” he says.
“These guys come in, they bully you out of the place … They’ve taken over what we call an activity center: everybody that doesn’t do drugs stays away from the canteen because we know they do the drugs down there, too,” he says.
Minutes from residents’ meetings show “complaints about finding clothes/food/urine/blood/drugs paraphernalia/beer cans or bottles/crack/cocaine/marijuana residue,” and police attending the care facility to arrest a drug dealer on one occasion.
Now, Salhany says the pandemic has revealed how separate care for the two diverse care groups can result in better peace of mind and ability to co-exist within the broader care centre.
Better care for drug users, too
In response to COVID-19 concerns and some residents not isolating, part of “Ward 4” has been converted for long term care for drug users who have been leaving the building to access drug supplies.
Salhany says since that separation, other residents who have severe disabilities have felt safer in their activities rooms, cafeteria, and hallways.
However, while that wing has its own washrooms, it shares shower space with other residents.
Meanwhile, a second ward, “Ward 1”, has been set up for COVID-19 recovery of patients from other long term care facilities.
So. Another part of this nightmare. GPC and VCH already have been unable to ensure the safety of my Dad, all residents…
“What we would like [management to do] after the pandemic is place the drug users into Ward 1 and we can have peace in our ward and Ward 4,” says Salhany.
“They’re gonna’ have a brand-new ward up there, everything is new and it would be the ideal place for them to be placed after COVID-19,” Salhany imagines, admitting he’s not an addictions expert.
In emails to the highest levels of the provincial health authority, Salhany’s wife has asked for residents with substance reliance to be given supervised injection sites, safe drug supplies, counselling, and extended treatment.
‘A breath of fresh air’
“GPC houses 114 adults with severe disabilities,” according to the VCH website. “The people who live here require specialized assistance as a result of disability, such as multiple sclerosis, spinal cord and traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy, or a variety of other conditions.”
Salhany is a quadriplegic due to medical complications. He has limited use of his arms, no feeling in his hands, and is paralyzed from the chest down.
“All I can do is control my wheelchair and that’s about it, everything else I need help with,” he says, explaining why some GPC residents may feel more at risk if threatened, though he’s heard no reports of any physical altercations.
However, a trail of complaints dating back to last year shows residents regularly felt unsafe in common spaces.
‘Not the only home’
According to internal meeting minutes, police were called and arrested a drug dealer at GPC on one occasion, in 2019.
Meeting minutes from Sept. 10, 2019 and Feb. 11, 2020 include reports to management of increasing conflict with staff and in common spaces.
“It has been impacting the rest of the Pearson community. Other residents do not feel comfortable being around that. It has also been impacting staff. The Activity Wing has been better since December. The police did come and arrest one of the dealers. But it seems that the activity has shifted to the Canteen.
“A lot of residents don’t go down to the Canteen or Activity Wing anymore because the drug users bully us, they surround you to kick us out. This happens primarily on weekends and evenings. Security cannot do anything, they can only ask them to move along and they are verbally abused. There are no consequences for this behavior, so it is getting worse,” read the February minutes.
“Late night use of Activity Wing: Ro [GPC manager] says we are getting to the point where we have to close it. There continues to be complaints about finding clothes/food/urine/blood/drugs paraphernalia/beer cans or bottles/crack/cocaine/marijuana residue,” the September, 2019 minutes say.
The complicated conflict isn’t confined to GPC, according to a statement made by the centre’s manager, Romilda Ang, in an email provided to NEWS 1130 by Karen Salhany, Bill’s wife of 40 years.
“I understand your concerns and I have the same,” Ang writes, shortly after visitations ended due to the coronavirus.
In the email, Ang addresses drug users leaving the property.
“Little by little we are making some gains but not enough to hold [residents who use drugs] in,” she writes, explaining the reality is there is no way to force residents to stay isolated.
“I have reached out to people at higher levels … We are not the only home facing the same challenges,” she writes in a March 28 reply.
‘No way to force’ isolation
Vancouver Coastal Health would not confirm details of the segregation measures, but provided information about how it has increased sanitization and cleaning. It has also confirmed staff are working only at GPC and no other facilities.
The health care authority says residents “who are eligible” are being offered “withdrawal management protocols under the new provincial guidelines developed to protect vulnerable populations from the dual public emergencies of COVID-19 and the ongoing opioid overdose crisis.”
“We advise residents of long-term care facilities to take the same precautions as the public to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as limiting non-essential trips, staying home and maintaining social distancing,” VCH writes. “However, there are no restrictions preventing residents from temporarily leaving their home.”
It’s been two weeks since Mrs. Salhany visited the 72-year-old former tuberculosis hospital to see her husband.
They both cried, and staff moved the bed out of the way so Bill could move his chair closer to the thick glass window to better see his wife. They talked on their cell phones.
When the pandemic is over, they say they’ve been told the clashing population groups will be reintegrated and things will go back to the way they were before the pandemic.
“I would love this to change the way we think of care homes and the mix of people in care homes,” she adds. “It’s got to change.”