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A sign stands outside a Chartwell seniors residence on July 10, 2020, in Quebec City.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Canada’s largest retirement home operator is urging provincial governments to further ease restrictions put in place to protect residents from the coronavirus, as the industry launches new marketing strategies to boost its sagging occupancy rates.

Chartwell Retirement Residences is asking government officials in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario to waive the 14-day isolation period for new residents of retirement homes. The provision is mandatory in all three provinces.

Confining seniors to their rooms for 14 days is “punitive and overly restrictive,” Sharon Ranalli, a spokeswoman for Chartwell, said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail. “The reason many chose retirement living is to avoid social isolation.”

The country’s major retirement home chains are marketing their facilities again now that the provinces are several stages into reopening their economies and easing lockdown restrictions put in place during the early days of the pandemic.

Chartwell is airing a national advertising campaign, Life is Better, Together, portraying its retirement homes as safe and supportive places for seniors. Sienna Senior Living Inc. is wooing potential residents with financial incentives, including rent credits and help with up-front moving costs. And Revera Inc. is waiving all fees for new residents for the first 14 days.

Unlike long-term care homes, where provincial health agencies co-ordinate admissions, retirement residences rely on sales and marketing to attract new residents.

The mandatory isolation period is discouraging some prospective residents from deciding to move into retirement homes, Chartwell executives told financial analysts during a conference call last month to discuss its second-quarter results.

Public-health officials require the 14-day isolation period as a precautionary measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19. British Columbia Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie said the measure applies not only to new residents of long-term care and retirement homes but also to travellers arriving in Canada and anybody with symptoms of the virus.

“If there is going to be a variance from that,” Ms. Mackenzie said in an interview, “it should be for public-health reasons, not for commercial reasons.”

A spokesman for the B.C. Ministry of Health said the government is not planning to change its policies around the 14-day isolation period. A spokesman for the Ontario counterpart said the province is not considering further loosening any public-health measures over the next four weeks.

Alberta, by contrast, plans to shift to a risk-based approach this week for quarantining new residents. Only those individuals who are determined to be high risk will be required to self-isolate, said Tom McMillan, a spokesman for Alberta Health.

Chartwell, a publicly traded real estate trust with shares listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange, owns and operates 173 retirement properties in Canada’s four largest provinces. Unlike B.C., Alberta and Ontario, Quebec does not require new residents of retirement homes to self-isolate for 14 days.

Chartwell is asking the provinces to waive the mandatory isolation period just as COVID-19 case counts are rising in many parts of the country. Ontario recorded 313 new infections on Sunday, the highest daily tally since June. Quebec had 279 new cases on Sunday and British Columbia reached a one-day record high last Thursday, with 139 new cases.

Ashleigh Tuite, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said it makes no sense to waive a policy that is designed to protect older adults from the coronavirus.

“Your best defence against an outbreak is to prevent the disease from entering a home,” she said.

Seniors living in congregate settings were particularly vulnerable at the outset of the pandemic. Just more than 80 per cent of Canada’s COVID-19 deaths were residents of nursing or retirement homes as of May 25, according to a report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

The virus was particularly lethal in nursing homes in Ontario, where 1,848 have died to date. Another 206 residents of retirement homes have died.

Provincial health officials lifted the temporary ban on visiting long-term care and retirement homes, once all but a handful of the outbreaks were over. The ban had a negative effect on occupancy at retirement homes.

Chartwell says in a presentation to analysts that occupancy in its retirement homes fell to 84.5 per cent in the second quarter ended June 30, down from 88.5 per cent in the same period a year ago.

Sienna, which owns 27 retirement homes in B.C. and Ontario and is also publicly listed on the TSX, said occupancy in its retirement homes declined to 83 per cent from 88.4 per cent during the same period.

Along with Revera, Chartwell and Sienna also own nursing homes that were hard hit by COVID-19.

Ms. Ranalli, the Chartwell spokeswoman, said the 30-second Life is Better, Together ad is designed to distinguish retirement residences from the “negative media focus” on nursing homes.

″Our marketing campaign aims to educate the public on the benefits of retirement living as a safe and supportive environment," she said.

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