Ed Ecker, 95, meets his newborn great-grandson, Brayden Shantz, through a window at St. Joseph’s Lifecare Centre in Brantford, Ont. Photo courtesy of Noelle Nieuwenhuis

John Ecker: Fear stalks the world of long-term care

By  John Ecker
  • May 6, 2020

I received the call about the COVID-19 outbreak at my father’s long-term care home during dinner.  A staff member had tested positive.

Whenever my phone lights up with “St. Joseph’s Lifecare Centre, Brantford,” my heart always skips a beat. It’s been that way since Dad moved to St. Joe’s in January 2019. He’ll be 96 on May 31 and not in terrific health. One needs to be constantly emotionally prepared for “the call.”

COVID-19 is wreaking havoc among our elderly loved ones, particularly those in long-term care homes. Of the more than 1,000 Ontarians who have died from COVID-19, approximately 75 per cent were in long-term care.

My father-in-law, who recently turned 91, is also in a long-term care facility. My daughter Victoria runs special programs for residents with severe dementia and behavioural challenges in a Sudbury area long-term care home. 

So, for my family, like many others, COVID-19 is not strictly a matter of working from home, practising social distancing and binge-watching Netflix. It is the long shadow that looms at the edge of every waking hour and many sleepless nights.

As Ontario starts its planning to re-open the economy, most people see a degree of normalcy on the horizon. Not so for those in long-term care — nor their families. I last saw Dad and gave him a hug on March 7. I took him to Mass at St. Mary’s, his home parish of over 60 years. We went out for dinner with some other family members. It’s now clear I may not share a meal with him again for many months as long-term care homes remain ground zero in the pandemic. 

His world now is a 12 x 14-foot room. His meals are in his room, alone, without the company of the three men with whom he’s shared a table since arriving at St. Joe’s. Recreational activities are cancelled. The bi-weekly Masses are cancelled. The St. Mary’s Parish Home Communion ministry is suspended. The weekly rosary, led by my aunt and uncle, is cancelled. No more musical performances, bingo, “healthy minds” trivia sessions or anything else that involves contact with people.

Staff, by necessity, all wear masks, necessary protection for residents and workers. He doesn’t even get to see a smile.

I call Dad on the phone more frequently now. St. Joe’s has also set up scheduled FaceTime calls and I’m so pleased Dad’s grandchildren are connecting with him frequently so that he can see his great-grandchildren onscreen. Recently, St. Joe’s began offering scheduled window visits with loved ones.

The staff are doing their best with the cards they’ve been dealt. However, we are all seeing that the deck is clearly stacked against our most vulnerable seniors. Several Ontario long-term care homes have had deaths in the dozens. Last Friday, the Canadian Armed Forces was called in to assist at several homes. Canada, 2020!

According to Premier Doug Ford, “we’re in the thick of a rampant battle against COVID-19 in our long-term care homes. As we face some of the darkest times in our province’s history, we have a duty to protect and care for the most vulnerable in our society. And we will continue to do everything we can as a province to support these homes, residents and staff.”

Our seniors deserve to live their final days in safe environments. The long-term care horror stories we are hearing in the midst of the pandemic are an embarrassment for an advanced society. And they are instilling fear in many seniors.

CBC News says Dying With Dignity Canada is receiving an increasing number of calls inquiring about assisted suicide. As Catholics we know our lives belong to God and believe that life begins at conception and ends in natural death. But the push in broader society for even more permissive assisted suicide laws is strong. 

Catholics and Catholic religious orders established so many of the excellent health care facilities in Canada. As Catholics, we should feel the call to speak up with clarity and charity in defence of life in the public policy debates that will come following COVID-19. Important and difficult choices involving societal values, end-of-life protocols and financial investments will be made.

It’s up to us to stand up for seniors and other vulnerable people as scarcer resources are allocated and supporters of assisted suicide assert their own grim solutions.

As for me, my heart will continue to skip a beat every time I get a call from St. Joe’s.

(Ecker is director of the Family of Faith Campaign and Special Projects in the Archdiocese of Toronto.)

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