Woman offering emotional support to strangers navigating Ontario’s long term care system

A Bracebridge. Ont. woman has suddenly found herself an advocate for families with loved ones in long-term care after she says she became sick and tired of seeing seniors inside denied access to their relatives.

Julie Richard had to navigate her way through Ontario’s long-term care system when her “Nana” was in a home. She’s also a former volunteer for a Scarborough care facility.

So when she saw story after story of seniors cooped up and cut off from family members during the COVID-19 pandemic, she decided she could no longer sit on the sidelines and launched into action to help.

“Those residents in long term care are literally prisoners. They’re being held hostage, they’re being denied access to their relatives,” Richard told CBC News.

“I’m not a lawyer. I’m not a professional advocate. I’m not affiliated with any group. I am just a private citizen who knows the system and wants to help.”

Throughout the pandemic, the provincial government has allowed family members to be classified as essential caregivers as long as they take precautions, such as wearing appropriate protective equipment. That status provides individuals unrestricted access to loved ones to give them care that a home deems necessary.

But the rules for essential caregivers say that while homes should consider accommodating family members’ requests to become essential caregivers, doing so isn’t mandatory. Long-term care homes therefore have the flexibility to determine whether they are equipped to welcome essential caregivers, or not. 

As a result, argues Richard, homes are “arbitrarily dictating terms to families” while families are “terrified of the repercussions for their family members.”

Julie Richard, 48, says she spends hours every day helping complete strangers navigate the long term care system, mostly by offering emotional support. (Submitted by Julie Richard)

Loved ones could ‘take a huge burden off’ homes

In a statement to CBC News, Ministry of Long-Term Care spokesperson Gillian Sloggett said resident and staff safety is its “number one priority.”

“The early decision to restrict visits to essential visitors only was not made lightly, as we know the tremendous hardship it posed for family,” Sloggett said.

The ministry’s goal is to “remove restrictions as soon as it is safe and feasible to do so,” the statement added.

Richard meanwhile has made it her mission to help people lobby private long-term care homes and the government when families are denied essential caregiver status.

A couple of months ago, Richard posted on Facebook offering to help, mostly in the form of emotional support. Before long, she says, she was “inundated with private messages, emails, text messages and phone calls.” 

Now she’s offering support to at least 20 families as they try and get the care their loved ones deserve. 

“If they let all of these essential caregivers be with their family members in the home doing the care they did before COVID, that would take a huge burden off all of these personal support workers and registered nurses that are already burnt out,” Richard said. 

Doctors and other medical professionals have been warning about the ill-effects of the pandemic, not just from the disease but from the “isolation and loneliness” that can have devastating impacts on a senior’s deteriorating condition.

‘Little angel’ helping families navigate the system

Sheryl Davidson says Richard has been an “angel” for her, helping her connect with the right people and offering emotional support. 

Prior to the pandemic, Davidson, 52, was the primary caregiver for her 92-year-old mother Dorothy Snowden, who lives with dementia in a long-term care home in Cobourg. 

Davidson used to be responsible for her mom’s dental hygiene, hair care, foot care, face washing, eating and so many other things, but when the pandemic struck that all stopped. 

She hadn’t heard of the term “essential caregiver” and the privileges that come with it, but now she says Richard is helping her figure out how to become one. 

“It’s good to have people like that in the world, little angels. Just like all the nurses and personal support workers, we’ve got lots of angels right now in this COVID,” Davidson said. 

This past Tuesday Davidson was able to visit with her mom for the first time since the pandemic began — and what she saw during that dining hall visit, brought her to tears. 

During the pandemic, her mom has dropped some 15 pounds down to an overall weight of 70 pounds.

This past Tuesday, Sheryl Davidson, 52, was able to visit with her mom, Dorothy Snowden, for the first time since the pandemic began. (Submitted by Sheryl Davidson)

“I was putting cream on her arms and her legs and it’s just skin right on top of bones, it’s heartbreaking. I held it together until I got outside and I just lost it,” Davidson said. “It’s just like she’s already gone, it’s horrible.” 

Davidson says she believes the home is doing its best, but says the care workers there are overwhelmed. 

“I do trust them and in all these months that’s why I’ve let it that I can’t get in,” she said

“But it’s time now. All these seniors need to see their family.” 

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