By Robin Levinson
Margaret and Aubrey Burt were together almost 55 years before their health and an overstressed long-term care system tore them apart.
The couple lived together happily in Pleasant View Manor, a senior-care facility. Both have been diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer's, says their son, Rev. Lindsey J. Burt.
Laundry was done and meals were prepared for them, and there were on-site nurses to monitor their medications.
But last year Margaret, 75, began to need more care. Unable to make it to the bathroom on her own, she needs daily physical support. So she was moved to North Haven Manor, a nursing home that provides more intensive care for elderly patients.
Unfortunately, her husband could not join her. Aubrey, 78, does not need the daily support his wife does and North Haven could not accommodate him. For the first time in more than half a century, Margaret must live apart from her husband.
Lindsey says when his mother first moved into North Haven, she could not understand why her husband was not there with her.
"It was terrible really, the first number of weeks," he says.
Lindsey lives in St. John, N.B. and most of his siblings live out-of-province as well. He says he thinks if more of them lived near their parents, things would be easier.
But Lindsey's siblings have jobs away, and their parents don't want to leave Lewisport.
"They're homebody Newfoundlanders," Lindsey says.
When Aubrey lost his driver's licence, it made the transition even harder. Unable to drive himself the 10 kilometres to North Haven, he must rely on staff and family to take him to see his wife. He tries to make it every day, but sometimes he can't.
"That's the big outing of his day, being able to get down there," Lindsey says.
Then, when he has to leave to go home, Lindsey says his mother feels the loss all over again.
"She doesn't understand why they have to be separated, why they can't be together, why he's leaving to go back to his own place."
Margaret and Aubrey's separation is, sadly, not unique. As the population ages, the province is increasingly strapped for resources for long-term care. A spokesperson for North Haven Manor said the facility tries to accommodate spouses in situations like Aubrey and Margaret's, but it just doesn't have enough beds.
According to the Department of Health and Community Services, there are 2,814 long-term care beds across the province. But the Department says 1,000 new beds will need to be added over the next decade.
A spokesperson for Health and Community Services said it is working on a pilot program that would provide extra care so that seniors who need more attention can stay in less-intensive facilities. This program might help cases like Margaret's and Aubrey's, where the spouses need different levels of care.
Lindsey says the current administration needs to make keeping elderly couples together a priority.
"The whole system needs to be looked at," he says.
He's concerned that forcing his parents to live apart is not only cruel, but detrimental to their overall well-being.
"It puts more stress on them." Lindsey says. "We've seen Dad sort of lose, lose the will to even be here."
When Aubrey does see Margaret, Lindsey says he notices a big improvement in his demeanor.
"Dad seems to just liven right up," he says.
Lindsey says that he's happy with the actual care both his parents receive.
"I don't think there's better facilities probably anywhere," he says.
Some day, he hopes his parents will find a home where they can get the care they need and "spend their last days at least together."