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'I started crying, it's about time': Families welcome B.C. changes to long-term care visits

Last Updated Jul 8, 2021 at 11:14 pm PDT

Jeanette Harper with her mother, Marguerite Bell in February, 2021 (Contributed photo)

Starting July 19, British Columbians won't have to book visits to long-term care homes in advance

Masks will not be required for fully-vaccinated visitors to B.C. care homes

Larger social events and gatherings will be allowed at B.C. care homes later this month

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — One woman whose 90-year-old mother is in long-term care in B.C. says she wept with joy when she learned she will soon be able to visit her mom without making an appointment, and without wearing a mask.

Many COVID-19 restrictions around visitation at long-term care homes in the province will be lifted July 19, health officials announced Thursday.

Jeanette Harper says it’s hard to describe what this means to people who have had visits with their loved ones restricted for over a year.

“I started crying. It was very emotional. It’s been a really long 16 months. I kind of feel like advocating for my mother and trying to get in to see her has consumed me. I was so relieved. It just feels like it’s about time. ” she says.

“Unless you have someone in long-term care it’s really hard to understand what it’s like to try to connect with someone through a window, or on a phone, someone that has dementia or Alzheimer’s — that was tough. We really felt like my mom was slipping away. I have seen a big change in her in the last few months, which is good and I think that has to do with us being in there.”

Being able to uncover her face means Harper and her mother can enjoy some of the simple pleasures that were a routine part of their visits pre-pandemic.

“I’m looking forward to taking that mask off. Surprisingly, she knows me and never questions, ‘Why do you have the mask on?’ But I want to be able to make a cup of tea and have something to eat with her because I bring her treats when I’m there. That’ll be nice,” she says.

The prospect of her mother seeing more family members at her Nanaimo care home is another thing Harper is thrilled about.

“My daughters are all in town, they would go with me. I think for my sister, it’s going to make a difference, she’s got three children in town and she’s got two grandchildren so she can actually take my mother’s great-grandchildren, both at the same time to see my mother,” she says.

Allowing double-vaccinated volunteers back in will also restore some routine for residents, and allow for activities that they enjoy to resume.

“It’s been a very bleak existence. They had to let family in first, but I’m happy to know that volunteers also will be allowed,” Harper says.

Banning visitors outright is something Harper thinks never should have happened, and she is still upset about the time she lost with her mother.

“We missed two birthdays with my mother and when you’re 90 years old, you never know if you’re going to get to the next one,” she says.

“The sad thing is, so many of us, our loved ones have deteriorated and we’re not going to get that time back.”

But for now, Harper is just counting down the days until the changes come into effect.

“I can’t wait. I can’t wait to see the other families and just see the other residents, interacting with their loved ones. I look forward to that.

No more mandatory masks, appointments, limits on number of visitors 

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix outlined the changes at a news conference.

“Small groups of friends or family [will be able to] gather together for a visit. And if people are visiting from other parts of the province … they’ll be able to do that without having to book ahead,” Henry said

Visitors who are fully vaccinated will not be required to wear a mask, provided the person they are visiting has also received their second dose.

“Visitors will be asked to provide proof of immunization when they arrive at a facility, and will continue to need to wear a medical mask when they’re in common areas, but they’ll no longer be required to follow those infection prevention measures when they’re in the room with their loved one,” Henry explained.

“For those who are not fully immunized or who are not willing or able to produce the proof of immunization, there are precautions that we have in place now. We’ll be continuing to make sure that we don’t add additional risk in our care homes,” Henry said.

Unvaccinated staff members will still have to wear masks, as Henry points out it’s “not practical for people to choose which staff members they have.”

“We are taking measures to ensure that that health care workers, particularly in long-term care are either immunized or continue to take the infection control precautions that are in place right now, as well as additional testing that will be required for any non-vaccinated staff,” B.C.’s top doctor said.

“It will be a requirement that all people who work in long-term care are immunized, or they will continue masking and testing on a routine basis,” she added.

Long-term care homes will continue to have sign-in lists for contact tracing purposes.

Thursday’s COVID-19 numbers indicate 40 per cent of eligible British Columbians have received two doses of COVID-19 vaccine.

“Today, the vast majority of seniors in care and residents and workers are vaccinated. And we can see that light at the end of the tunnel,” Henry said.

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Social events and gatherings will also be allowed in larger numbers.

“The adult day programs will fully resume. They had been limited in some areas. This will provide additional health and well-being benefits for seniors as well, of course, as for their families,” Henry said, adding larger, facility-wide social events will be allowed once again.

Indoor gatherings will be limited to residents and staff, but family and friends will be allowed to join for outdoor events.

“We know that these changes will be a big sense of joy and relief to many, many people. But we also know that some people will be nervous, perhaps feeling as though we’re moving a bit too quickly. We have considered these things very carefully and we will continue to be watching,” Henry said.

People will still be expected to do the basics to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other illnesses. That includes not visiting if you are feeling unwell and regular hand washing.

Speaking Thursday, Henry thanked long-term care residents and workers who have struggled throughout the pandemic.

“I know this has been an incredibly challenging time, and everybody has pitched in to try and make sure we can best protect people in the most vulnerable of environments in long-term care. It’s made a huge difference,” she said, adding vaccines have been a “game-changer.”

“The families and friends who have missed those important shared moments over this past 18 months … [you will have] the ability to hold your family member, your friend close again. I hope that this will be a sense of sweet joy, as I expect it will be for many.”