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David Stewart, 85, looks through his window at the Altamont Care Community long-term care home in Toronto, On. on May 29, 2020. A report from the military found a shortage of staff, meant residents were not receiving proper care, including regular meals, medication and turning to prevent bed sores.Marta Iwanek/The Globe and Mail

F.W. David Stewart is an 85-year-old resident at Altamont Care Community in Scarborough, Ont., one of the long-term-care facilities the Ontario government has taken over. A report from the military found a shortage of staff meant residents were not receiving proper care, including regular meals, medication and turning to prevent bed sores. Fifty-two residents have died of COVID-19. This is Mr. Stewart’s account of the outbreak, as told to his son J.D.M. Stewart.

Altamont Care Community became my home last September, after I broke my hip in a fall. It was not my first choice, but fit my budget and kept me close to my children. I would say that it’s never been great here, but COVID-19 made it worse.

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I started to notice not too long after the pandemic broke out that nurses and personal support workers I’d come to know were missing from work. No one seemed to replace them. At night, I’d hear other residents calling out. It seemed like a long time before anyone would come. I’m one of the rare ones here who is still mobile. Nearly everyone else is in a wheelchair and needs help. “It’s like no one works here,” I told my son in one of our regular phone calls.

As a result of fewer staff showing up, some things started to slip through the cracks, such as having my bed made, sheets washed regularly or getting one of the twice-a-week showers. I had one sponge bath not that long ago. Once we were confined to our rooms, there was no more eating in the dining room or walking around. We couldn’t go outside for fresh air.

In the beginning, no one told us anything about what was going on inside the home. We were kept in the dark. The first time I heard about Altamont on the news was when the army was ordered in. Before that, I watched three bodies be taken out on different days from the rooms across the hallway from me. Two of them were from the same room, and the other was two doors down.

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Signs near the entrance of the Altamont Care Community long-term care home in Toronto, Ontario on May 29, 2020. Fifty-two residents have died of COVID-19.Marta Iwanek/The Globe and Mail

They came out on stretchers wrapped up in white sheets.

All of this was very upsetting. I didn’t know yet if I had COVID-19 or not. I hadn’t been tested by that time, and seeing the dead bodies made me feel very depressed. I didn’t feel sick, but I felt depressed. Once [Ontario Premier Doug] Ford ordered everyone in long-term care facilities to be tested, I got tested. It came back positive. I had COVID-19. I called my children on my cell phone and told them. I felt terrible and hoped I wasn’t going to die, but I took it in stride somehow. I like to joke that I want a t-shirt made up that says “I survived COVID-19."

The army

Things changed when the army arrived in late April. They get an A+ from me for what they are doing here. They deliver the breakfasts, and they keep cleaning the place and, generally speaking, they’re just good guys and ladies. When they arrived, they were all neatly dressed in their uniforms, and then they had to change into their hospital gear. But the army all wear maroon outfits, so you can tell who they are.

The thing about them is that when you ask for something or if you need something special, they will get it for you. The other day, I needed a towel and they got me one. Before they came, I would more often have to get something like that myself. This week, one of the army staff came by and did my nails, which hadn’t been done for a while, especially my toenails – the chiropodist is not allowed to come. I haven’t had my toes done for about three months. I’ve tried to do it myself, but sometimes my fingers aren’t strong enough to push down on the clipper to get it to work. And I will say this about the soldiers: For the people in wheelchairs, the army pushes them around, which is nice to see.

‘ Jesus, I missed you!’

Thank goodness I have the television. That’s about all I can say. I watch a lot of CNN and a lot of CP24, but I don’t have much else to do. There are a lot of good movies on television, and I have a TV in my room.

Window visits are the only way to see family. It’s nice to be able to see people, but you can only talk through the cell phone, if you have one, because the window can hardly be opened.

I also pass the time by kidding around with the nurses, and that can be fun, but half the time I can’t understand what they are saying back to me because everyone is wearing a mask and shield over their faces. One staff member came up to me the other day and asked if I could tell her a couple of jokes. I said, “Okay," and I told her I would tell her the kind that she could tell to everyone.

My most frequent complaints have been about the food. It matters a lot when there’s not much else to your day. We get a good meal, and sometimes we don’t. I couldn’t eat lunch the other day because – what was it? – the egg dish that’s like a pie, quiche maybe. By the time I got mine, it was just cold. All the lunches now are individually boxed.

I’m fortunate that my granddaughters bring me a steak every so often, made by their mother. One of my sons orders me Swiss Chalet once a week and my other son brings a hamburger every so often. The burger I ate was so good, I told him, I could have had two!

One of my favourite nurses returned to work after six weeks away. She had recovered from the disease. She brought me my pills, and I told her how happy I was to see her – “Jesus, I missed you,” I said. She rubbed my shoulder for a minute. Really, I don’t think she knew what to do because I was so pleased to see her back. One of the other women I miss is the one I played cribbage with, but she’s been off for more than a month now and no one can tell me what’s happening with her.

I have had to stay in my room for two months now. However, more recently I have been able to sit on a little chair outside my room and sometimes I walk up and down the hallway. With the better weather, I was able to get outside twice last week, which was terrific. The soldiers took me outside and sat down with me. I walked around the traffic circle.

Looking ahead

As I said, since the army has been here, things have picked up. In the long term, I don’t know what the government will do. It would be great if the food could be better.

There should be a staff member around in the hallway during the night in case you really need them. I don’t always need them, but other people do and they shouldn’t have to wait so long when they call for help. There are a lot of people struggling here, including from mental health problems.

A visit from a doctor more than once a week would be good too. The doctor comes here on Mondays, so if you got ill on a Tuesday, you would have to wait till Monday to see him.

I think I should end on a humorous note. They ask me at least three times a day here if I’ve had a “BM” [bowel movement], so I give them the answer and then I just shoot back the question to them: “Have you? Have you had one?”

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Editor’s note: In the introduction to this article, it included an incorrect number for the residents who have died at Altamont.

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