For the first time, I was the crying person in the emergency room. As soon as I got to the ER doors, my sister pulled me through dozens of people to my grandpa’s cloth curtain-divided space. I held his hand while he consoled me, as if I was the one who had a heart attack.
It was January 9, 2020. I was serving a busy pre-theatre crowd at an Exchange District restaurant when I got the call. I heard my dad’s voice through the receiver: “Your grandpa had a heart attack. He was airlifted to Winnipeg. I’ll pick you up and bring you to the hospital. Your mom and sister are on their way there.”
The chaos around me melted away. I stood with what I imagine were wide eyes until my brain could respond. I called my manager to tell her what happened and left work.
I remember my dad driving, making small talk, and looking over at me every few seconds with concern. I could barely speak.
Thirty minutes after I arrived at the hospital, the ER doctor put a stent in my grandpa’s heart, and he was back to cracking jokes and telling us he couldn’t wait to get back home.
I’m close with my grandparents, but they live in Kenora, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Winnipeg, and I don’t see them as often as I’d like. After his heart attack, I vowed to myself to go see him and my grandma more often. It reminded me time with them was fleeting, and I needed to squeeze as much love and knowledge out of them over the next few years.
* * *
In a class at Red River College two months later, the province had confirmed its first presumptive case of COVID-19. We spent class talking about “this coronavirus thing.” Our instructor was as confused as the students and sent us home saying we’d probably have the following week off. None of us realized how much would change in the next month, let alone year.
Later that day, Manitoba identified two more cases.
A full year later, the province was still under a state of emergency.
Throughout the pandemic, adults 65 and older have faced impacts to their mental health, physical health, and overall wellbeing. The pandemic has caused major setbacks for most, but many people in this high-risk age group faced near-total isolation.
Since Manitoba’s first cases of COVID-19, hospital and personal care home (PCH) visitor rules have changed drastically. Gone are the days of families cramming together in a sterile hospital room to hold the hands of their loved ones at their time of death. Gone are the days of visiting family in a PCH without wearing a mask.
Manitoba saw severe outbreaks, including the Maples Long Term Care Home outbreak in October, which resulted in 56 deaths in its 200-bed facility.
One year after the start of COVID-19 in Manitoba, we still see major social isolation and death rates in adults 65 and older. We still see older adults forced to choose between mental health or physical health, and we still see outbreaks in PCHs, which trap residents in their rooms.
Adults 60 and older accounted for 95.9 per cent of COVID-19 deaths in Canada compared to 4.1 per cent of people aged 59 and lower. (This statistic is accurate as of March 26).
Social isolation impacts death rates
In June 2020, Statistics Canada released a report about the link between social isolation and death in Canadian seniors. They found it connects to an increased risk of death, along with disability. The bottom line — social isolation has an impact on general health and is a public health issue.
Social isolation and loneliness were issues in older adults well before the pandemic began. Major life changes, the loss of friends and family, income, health and mobility issues, and ageism all had an impact before COVID-19, and their impact is likely heavier now.
The pandemic has taught us many things — we need to wash our hands more, we aren’t invincible, and we can lose what’s important to us in a second. But even more so, the pandemic has reminded us of how shamefully older adults in Canada are treated — by governments, by society — and how little their health and wellness are valued.
As of February 27, Manitoba has had 30,766 cases of COVID-19. Of the 879 deaths by that date, more than 80 per cent were people over the age of 65.
Back in March 2020, Ron Blicq didn’t realize his life would change as much as it did.
“I just went along with what was happening. I go back to my background. In the military, you go along with what’s happening and you don’t have much choice,” the 95-year-old said.
Blicq has lived at Shaftesbury Park Retirement Residence for four years. He’s a soft-spoken Second World War veteran, as well as a poet, a playwright, and a published writer and editor of technical writing books. He said he writes “when the mood moves him.” During COVID-19, he has kept busy writing. His play Closures, which won the Samuel French Award for Best Canadian Play in 2008, was adapted into a film called Connecting Flights. He was not able to attend the in-person premiere in Winnipeg on January 29.
“Although I’ve been in sort of isolation, it hasn’t bothered me. The advantage there is that I’ve got things to do as a writer and editor. I’ve always got things to do. I’m still very active, at least in the mind. I think the whole secret to a long life is to have a busy, busy brain. Plus, health goes with it, of course,” said Blicq.
Not everyone in his building is as healthy as he is, said Blicq. The poetry club he’s part of hasn’t met since March 2020, and up until the end of January, residents couldn’t have family members visit. Blicq said they can eat in the dining hall but they can’t sit together. They eat meals alone, separated by tables.
Only one person in Blicq’s building — a man from the poetry club — has contracted COVID-19 so far. He caught the virus while in the hospital for an unrelated issue.
“They put him in isolation and since then, he’s back in the hospital. I think it’s permanent for him,” said Blicq.
Blicq doesn’t know anyone who has died from COVID-19, but he’s afraid he will eventually. He also fears catching the virus and his family seeing him deteriorate.
Internet, smartphones, and computers are part of Blicq’s daily routine. He FaceTimes his kids and grandchildren to stay connected.
“If I didn’t have internet [during COVID-19], it would be pretty grim, wouldn’t it?” said Blicq.
Staggering death rates in Canada’s long-term care homes
In the spring of 2020, news stories came out detailing the horrors of Quebec’s PCH COVID-19 outbreaks. At the start, we watched from afar as people died while we were seemingly safe in Manitoba.
Soon after, PCH outbreaks took hold here. The isolation of people living in PCHs increased by their having to stay confined in their rooms without social interaction between residents, and without regular visits from family members.
Stephan Geissler’s grandfather — who lived at Heritage Life Personal Care Home in Niverville, Manitoba — was one of those people. The PCH’s director of care emailed Geissler, referring to him as his grandfather’s designated caregiver. He hadn’t agreed to this role. In the email, the director of care told him they had no backup plan to cover for sick or overworked staff. They told Geissler they might call on him to help provide care for his grandfather — the care his family paid the PCH to provide.
“The way the PCH presented it to my mom and I was that in order for us to be able to continue a weekly indoor visit with my grandfather, our names would have to be added to the caregiver list. Needless to say when I saw this letter, I nearly shit myself,” said Geissler.
In November, Geissler said his grandfather feared what would happen to him in the PCH due to a lack of care and medication. On January 21 — mere weeks after his grandfather expressed his fears — he died from COVID-19.
Of Canada’s 38 million people, 17.5 per cent are 65 or older. The size of this group will continue to grow for a long time. The 2016 Census found that 6.8 per cent of Canadian seniors were living in a long-term care home or seniors’ residence. That amount jumps to 30 per cent when looking at Canadians over age 85. As of March 26, up to 85 per cent of all COVID-19 deaths in Canada were long-term care home residents.
In March, a CBC Manitoba news analysis reported a higher death rate of seniors in for-profit PCHs than in not-for-profit and provincially-run PCHs.
Thanks to Canada’s universal health care and government funding for people 65 and older, medical care, hospital care, some drug costs, and certain home care services are free. But during the pandemic, risks of going to the hospital elevate — especially for seniors.
While the government covers many health-related costs for seniors, they’ve faced a lack of access to many other services. Libraries, access centres, and other city services were shuttered due to COVID-19, cutting seniors off from social interaction, internet connection, and other services. Many don’t have home access to internet, cell phones, and computers.
A recent provincial government report found that 127,654 people used access centres in Manitoba. This number was a 203 per cent increase from 2010’s 42,175 people. These numbers show the necessity for access centres, including Seniors and Active Living Centres.
Efforts to educate long-term care home and retirement residents with technology barriers are helpful to assist this high-risk group in connecting, but there’s still a gap when looking at low-income seniors.
Helping others keeps senior connected
While many seniors feel disconnected and isolated, Connie Newman, 72, stays connected to her community through her work.
Newman is a consultant for the Manitoba Association of Senior Centres and a board member and past president of the St. James Assiniboia 55+ Centre.
“My best friend right now is my laptop and Zoom meetings,” said Newman.
Newman lives in her own home with her daughter, who moved in during the start of the pandemic. Newman credits working and walking her dog for keeping her healthy mentally.
“The lockdown affects everybody, whether you’re 20 or whether you’re 50. And if you are isolated from people, it’s hard because then it’s going to affect your physical health, as well as your mental health,” said Newman.
She said she doesn’t worry about older adults as much if they’re able to connect using computers.
“The biggest problem today in my world and what I do is low-income seniors who don’t have access to Wi-Fi because of the cost. We can provide them with laptops, notebooks, or iPads,” she said. “But with no Wi-Fi and no access to the library, leisure centres or the City of Winnipeg centres, they’re stuck. And that to me is a sad state of affairs.”
Access to Wi-Fi and internet connections aren’t just Manitoba issues, though. It’s one that affects all of Canada.
Food delivery and grocery delivery apps like SkipTheDishes and Instacart became increasingly popular throughout the pandemic as people tried to stay home and out of stores. Curbside pickup popped up at nearly every store in Winnipeg. These apps often charge a premium to allow people to skip lineups and exposure to COVID-19 cases.
But it seems little was said about low-income seniors who didn’t have ready access to the trappings of e-convenience or credit cards. It’s another way seniors found themselves isolated. Internet isolation seeps into virtually every aspect of everyday life during this pandemic.
“You can really see now because of the pandemic, the have versus the have-nots around technology. There’s some [people] my age and older that can’t afford it yet,” said Newman.
Many people, including seniors, still get their news in print. Spiking cases in November led to new health restrictions, and the province deemed newspapers non-essential for two days. The purchase of prepaid credit cards and gift cards was also on the non-essential list. While the list was quickly fixed, this was an example of health orders without, it seems, considering the impact on seniors.
Newman said she’s stuck calculating the risks of every interaction she has due to her age-related risk-factor.
“I may survive it because I’m healthy. But I’m also at that age where I could have a heart attack tomorrow. And my hospital in Winnipeg won’t be able to look after me because they’re full of COVID-19 patients today,” said Newman.
Pandemic changes daily routines
Maureen Gardner, 81, lives alone in her Westwood home. The pandemic has uprooted her usually active social life.
Gardner said she used to travel often when she was younger. Since getting older, she travels every summer with three friends, visits her daughter in Victoria, BC, and attends Alpha Delta Kappa sorority conventions for women educators. Gardner has been a widow for 24 years.
“I hope that I’ll have enough health to continue travelling after COVID-19,” said Gardner.
Before the pandemic, Gardner said she kept herself busy with plenty of social interaction.
“I live a fairly — or did — live a fairly busy lifestyle. My days were full. I was busy and I liked it that way,” said Gardner.
Before the pandemic, Gardner went to the gym every day and swam laps in the pool three times a week. She played bridge in three bridge clubs and went to church once a week. On top of that, she went to the symphony, the ballet, the opera, and other concerts regularly. She knits, reads a lot, and donates to charity — but she’s still struggling.
Gardner said while the first three months of the pandemic were difficult, she went back to the gym, pool, and restaurants once they reopened.
“I’m not without anything to do, but the first three months were difficult. Then they opened things up and now they’re closed again. I’ve found that difficult,” said Gardner. “There are medical things you have to do but you sort of look forward to them because it makes you get up and get out of the house.” (The restrictions have since changed from when we spoke).
Gardner has three close friends living in Charleswood Personal Care Home. Back in December, two of them had COVID-19. She wasn’t able to check on the third because she’s not a family member.
“When I see those people are suffering, it makes you very grateful for what you have when you’re not in a nursing home,” said Gardner. “I mean, life is over. When you look at them you think, they’ll never go to another concert. They’ll never go to another restaurant. They’ll never come to anybody’s home. And they get up and they go to bed and really what is left? And now, of course they’re all isolated in their own rooms and nobody can go in to see them.”
Lifestyles changed due to COVID-19
Before my grandpa turned 75, my grandparents travelled often. They would take their RV and drive through Arizona to Mexico. They loved winter because it was their time to travel. Once he turned 75, they said the cost of health insurance was too expensive to continue.
If grandpa had his heart attack two months later, I wouldn’t have been able to hold his hand in the ER that night. If he had complications months after his stent surgery, I wouldn’t have been able to keep him company during his hospital stay.
I didn’t get to keep my word on visiting my grandparents more. Instead, I resorted to our usual FaceTime chats because visiting in-person wasn’t an option. Due to grandpa’s heart attack, grandma’s diabetes, and their ages, they’re at a high-risk of COVID-19-related complications. I miss them but keeping them safe from possible COVID-19 exposure is my main priority, even if that means not seeing them in-person.
My grandparents are lucky. Sure, they’re stuck inside, but they have the company of their daughter, Judy, who moved in a few months before the pandemic. She shops for them, has supper with them, and dresses up in witch hats with them on Halloween.
At 90, grandpa says he’s had a good life. He loves the life he has with grandma, and he’s happy they can live in their home. They miss the travel but they’ve accepted the life they have now.
As we surpass the one-year anniversary of COVID-19 in Manitoba, many speak of a new normal on the horizon. However, for those still in social isolation or those who’ve lost a loved one, we’re reminded of more than just our personal grievances with the pandemic. We’re reminded of the negligence in care and concern for adults 65 and older.