Sharon Holcroft faced the cold spring morning from her wheelchair, on the front porch of the Fulford Residence, a long-term care home in downtown Montreal. Her slippered feet barely touched the ground and dark sunglasses covered her sightless eyes. Cherry blossoms blew across the pavement.
This is not some sterile institution, she said, “it really is homelike.” A support worker named Connie will paint your nails salmon pink. On nice days you can sit outside with a cup of tea and listen to the birds. There used to be singalongs, before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I don’t want to leave,” she said.
Fulford has been a refuge for elderly women since the 19th century. But after 131 years in the same location on Guy St., it is scheduled to close in September. Ms. Holcroft, 76, is one of about a dozen women who still live there.
COVID-19 battered the home earlier this year, killing 10 residents and worsening long-standing financial problems, prompting the private, not-for-profit facility to announce its closure in March. Board members, including the Anglican Bishop of Montreal, say there is no way to keep it open.
But Ms. Holcroft is part of a group of residents and their families fighting to save the home, at least temporarily. They want the board to explore options for maintaining the residence and postpone closing for at least six months. The group has lined up support from community organizations, a prominent law firm and the local member of the National Assembly.
The dispute has turned into a bitter public fight between the families and the board, including threats of legal action.
Christopher Holcroft, Sharon’s son, who leads the opposition, said removing a group of ailing women in the midst of a pandemic is “cruel.” He argues that it is backward to shutter such a distinctive institution right now, while the country searches for more humane ways of caring for its seniors.
“I want to save the home for my mom,” he said. “But in the context of this conversation of how to care for our elders, you’ve got a model of good care. Let’s try to save it.”
Fulford is, in some ways, an institution out of time. It is named for Montreal’s first Anglican Bishop, Francis Fulford, and his wife Mary, who founded it as a residence for young single women in 1855. It has been housed in the same stately Victorian mansion since 1890.
Today, it is surrounded by condos and kebab shops, but the home has preserved an old-fashioned ambience within its walls. There is a roast and sherry for lunch on Sundays, and residents say grace before meals.
Ms. Holcroft likes that cozy atmosphere. She is blind and a recent survivor of kidney cancer; she lost two of her tablemates, Shirley and Olive, to the virus this winter. Despite those trials, Fulford feels like home.
“It’s almost like a large family,” she said. “It’s not like you’re in a place where you feel your life is passing you by.”
When Paul Deutschman moved his mother into the residence two-and-a-half years ago, he chose it partly because it wasn’t like other LTC homes.
“There was something about Fulford – it actually had a charm,” he said.
The board of governors maintains, however, that the facility isn’t charming enough to make up for the many shortcomings that come with its age. Fulford was conceived as a home for healthier, more independent women, not for modern long-term care, said Mary Irwin-Gibson, Montreal’s Anglican bishop and president of the board. (The role is a “vestige” of the church’s original connection to the home, she said – it doesn’t own the house or the land.)
Just five rooms have private bathrooms, in a home that can accommodate 38 women, she noted. Other rooms are too small to turn a wheelchair around in. These drawbacks have created a “persistent level of vacancy” that means the residence has operated at a loss for years. Before the pandemic, the home was losing about $100,000 a year, she said.
“It’s an old house and isn’t equipped as a nursing home,” said Ms. Irwin-Gibson. “We have a terrible prospect of future growth potential.”
The pandemic accelerated these chronic problems. When an outbreak killed 10 residents early this year, the home was left with 17 vacancies, and monthly losses mounted to about $60,000, said managing director Marie-France Lacoste.
In March, the board gave the remaining women until Sept. 3 – the legally required minimum of six months – to find a new place to live. The news came as a bitter blow to some, especially so soon after the trauma of a COVID-19 outbreak.
“I was shocked and didn’t want to believe it,” said Ms. Holcroft.
A group of families sprung into action, signing a letter to the board requesting a pause to the closure along with a committee to study options for keeping the home open. They also asked for access to a consultant’s report on the home’s finances that was used to justify the decision, which the board has so far refused to provide.
A written response from the board, asking that management be allowed to continue providing care “without interference,” only angered the families.
In the following two months, several residents moved out – their moves were paid for and assisted by the home – but others dug in for a battle. The dissident families said they were baffled that the board wasn’t looking harder for sources of funding, or even raising the relatively modest monthly fees on residents, which are generally under $4,000, far lower than most for-profit homes. Robin Black, whose mother lives at Fulford, said he would be willing to pay as much as $1,500 more a month, but nobody asked.
On May 5, he and Mr. Holcroft enlisted the well-known civil liberties lawyer Julius Grey to send the bishop and her vice-president a letter threatening unspecified legal action if the closure wasn’t paused within 15 days.
The dispute has created bad blood on both sides. In a recent interview, Ms. Irwin-Gibson lashed out at the families and the media for covering the story.
“We’re just overwhelmed by this attack on our integrity when we’ve done everything to care for these ladies,” she said. “This is a snow job … And you guys are all picking it up and drinking the Kool-Aid.”
A handful of prominent citizens and community groups, including Seniors Action Quebec and the Quebec Anglophone Heritage Network, have rallied to the side of the families and sent letters to the board opposing the abrupt closure. Jennifer Maccarone, the local MNA, said she wants the home to remain open, possibly as a public-private partnership.
“It’s nonsensical to me that we’re closing an institution like this when we need it more than ever,” said Ms. Maccarone.
The provincial government, for its part, appears to be washing its hands of the matter. The office of Marguerite Blais, Quebec’s minister responsible for seniors, said she would not intervene in the closure, noting that private LTC homes don’t fall under government control and the board’s decision was unanimous.
Some families worry any move will be wrenching for their loved ones. Those who can’t afford a private residence may need to place their relatives in a transition bed while they wait for a permanent spot in one of the province’s public LTC facilities. The disruption could be especially daunting for women with dementia, such as Robin Black’s mother.
Above all, families say they are reluctant to give up the distinctive intimacy and warmth of Fulford: the summer barbecues, home-cooked meals and cookies for grandchildren.
“We have a real problem with how we treat seniors in this country,” said Mr. Black. “This place is a compass.”
Despite the opposition campaign, the board stands behind its decision. Ms. Irwin-Gibson said the home could face bankruptcy if its current losses continue and that she is determined to close on schedule. Some families fear the property will be sold to a condo developer, but the bishop said that option is “off the table,” and the board will try to find a role for the building that meets an “unmet need in the city,” such as housing for the homeless.
The bishop said she understands the feelings of residents such as Ms. Holcroft, who fear having to move, but that closing the home is inevitable.
“I’m sure she’s afraid. I sympathize with her fears,” said Ms. Irwin-Gibson. “Change is really hard for people and it’s very hard for older people … But some change has to happen.”
Bundled in a raincoat against the cold, Ms. Holcroft said she doesn’t understand why this particular change has to happen to her. She jokes about taking matters into her own hands and tying herself to the porch on moving day.
In the meantime, she is still hoping that someone, or something, will intervene. “I’m really praying for a miracle,” she said.
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