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Ken Neuman, 82, holds a photograph oh him and his wife Maureen from June 30, 1960 at his home in Vancouver on Oct. 9, 2020.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The only time in the past seven months Pam Neuman has touched her mother Maureen was inside Vancouver General Hospital in late June – after the 83-year-old had arrived for emergency hip surgery following a fall at a local care home.

When the daughter first lay a comforting hand on her mom, a paramedic jumped in to tell her she needed to put on a pair of gloves if she wanted to caress her mom. Shortly after surgery, her mother was moved back to her care home, where her husband of 60 years, Ken, is the lone family member allowed in for short “essential” visits. Maureen, who suffers from vascular dementia, was a staple in all their lives, but Pam Neuman says her three children’s memories of their grandmother are fading as the family waits until it can be reunited.

“We won’t know until this [pandemic] is all said and done what the long-term effects are on people not having access to their loved ones," she said.

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B.C. Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie said preliminary results of a recent survey of more than 12,000 seniors and their loved ones found more than half of the respondents received guests or visited at least several times a week before COVID-19 broke out on Canada’s West Coast in March. After the death toll began mounting at several nursing homes – some of which were understaffed – public-health officials and care-home providers banned all visitors in a desperate attempt to keep residents safe.

Now, as they vie for votes, B.C.'s political parties are grappling with how to best care for seniors and ensure such extreme action doesn’t become normalized. But experts say their core infrastructure promises likely won’t be enough to meet the future needs of the province’s population of aging and ailing baby boomers.

In B.C., 175 people living in these facilities have died after contracting the virus and a further 750 residents and staff have tested positive. Fewer clusters have been forming in recent months and as seniors and staff make up a smaller percentage of total cases in B.C., families are pushing the Provincial Health Officer to expand visitation rights beyond a single designated person.

Ms. Mackenzie, who was appointed to the official seniors' watchdog position six years ago, said results from her office’s extensive survey into the wellbeing of seniors will be released at the end of this month. Despite many respondents saying they visit regularly, she estimates roughly only a third of all people living in long-term care have friends or family that visited regularly before the pandemic threw their routines out the window. So accommodating more guests should not overwhelm these facilities, she said.

All three major political parties in the province agree that the current system of facilities is inadequate, but none could say exactly how many beds they would add.

The BC Liberals and the NDP are each pledging to invest at least a billion more dollars into the sector, if elected, to refurbish or build new facilities with single suites. The New Democrats would add $1.4-billion over a decade, focusing on public-owned facilities, while the Liberals say they will invest $1-billion in the next five years across all types of care homes. The Green Party has not supplied a figure, but says it is comfortable investing a billion dollars as it builds more public and non-profit beds and begins its plan to phase out private operators completely.

Experts in senior care say the current crisis in long-term care provides the perfect opportunity to completely overhaul the way homes are built and staffed. Their consensus is that 20,000 new beds are needed across the province to house the wave of seniors needing such care over the coming decade.

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Habib Chaudhury, chair of the gerontology faculty at Simon Fraser University, said the new funding proposals are a good first step, but he estimates that a billion dollars would only bring about 3,300 more single rooms online given each new bed costs roughly $300,000 in Canada. Much of this money will likely go into upgrading the third of long-term care suites that house two or more people in the same room, Dr. Chaudhury said. (Ontario, in contrast, houses 67 per cent of its seniors in shared rooms, according to a recent study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.)

Dan Levitt, executive director of the Tabor Village care home in Abbotsford and an adjunct professor of gerontology at Simon Fraser University, said any new facilities should involve non-profits like his that can chip in real estate and complete fundraising campaigns. Older care homes that house a hundred people to a floor are petri dishes for further outbreaks and offer outdated levels of care to the people living there, he said.

“So why not – instead of institutions – make them small households, where 12 people live together and it’s completely self-contained," Dr. Levitt said.

Roger Wong, a clinical professor in geriatric medicine at the University of British Columbia, said improving the social interaction that seniors get to enjoy while in care is critical because the current climate of isolation is doing incredible harm.

“There are studies that have compared the negative impact of loneliness and isolation equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and shaving off eight years of life expectancy – which is huge,” Dr. Wong said.

Ken Neuman said his wife had lost weight and appeared less able to speak when he restarted his daily drop-ins after her care home was locked off to all visitors in mid-March for several weeks. Since he was let back in to act as Maureen’s essential caregiver, he cherishes the 90 minutes it takes him to feed her breakfast. He only ever sees slight glimpses of the accomplished pianist who once danced with glee, but knows she appreciates it when he tickles and teases her, like old times.

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“I can still make her laugh,” he says with pride.

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