The last time Shelley Esposto touched her father was in December 2019 during a visit to the Corner Brook Long-Term Care Centre.
She had to drive all the way from Paradise, where she lives.
She was going to make the trip again for his birthday on March 14, but the facility had to close its doors to visitors because of an influenza outbreak.
A little over a week later, public health authorities closed all long-term care and personal care homes to visitors indefinitely.
She drove out again in April, but could only talk to him through a window.
“My heart started to break a bit because what about other people who are just taking things at face value, and don’t understand the medical side of things?” — Shelley Esposito
“It’s been a long road,” Esposto said Tuesday, a day after discovering doctors found a cancerous mass “the size of an apple” in her father’s right lung.
Since the government allowed designated visitors on June 10, Esposto’s brother in Corner Brook has been visiting. But she says the family started noticing changes in their father before that. He was complaining about being tired and cold.
Esposto, a registered nurse, says she had to fight to get bloodwork done for her father. The results showed his hemoglobin level had plummeted. That’s when they found the tumour.
“My heart started to break a bit because what about other people who are just taking things at face value, and don’t understand the medical side of things?” she said. “Their dad probably would have just slipped away.”
She doesn’t blame the staff, but feels there’s a trend away from trained nurses and LPNs toward personal care attendants, who don't have the same assessment skills.
“They can’t do what they haven’t been taught.”
Esposto’s plight is one experienced across the province as families deal with physical isolation from loved ones living in care facilities.
Her father also has dementia.
“I’ve noticed since COVID, though, it’s progressed rapidly,” she said. “When he had the family going in and visiting him, and the grandkids and stuff, it was a constant reminder who everybody was. Since that isolation, we’ve noticed that Dad deteriorated rapidly.”
For Suzanne Steele’s father, personal contact is even more crucial.
Steele’s father is in St. Patrick’s Mercy Home in St. John’s. He has severe dementia and will only respond if someone touches him first.
“Even though he may be able to see, I believe he sees differently. It could be blurry, it could be distorted. It’s like he’s got perception issues,” Steele said Tuesday.
When the home allowed Steele back in as a designated visitor, she was not allowed to go within two metres of her father. So her visits are meaningless.
More importantly, she says, St. Pat’s is not sufficiently staffed to handle the kind of care her father needs. A lot of it has fallen on her to provide during her regular visits.
They did hire extra staff for the pandemic, says Steele, but she and others have been lobbying the government to improve ratios in long-term care homes for some time.
Like Esposto, she doesn’t blame the facility.
“Our family is so happy with St. Pat’s, and the staff are amazing. They never get enough credit,” she said.
But Steele says the different approach taken by various facilities is unfair. Pleasantview Towers, for example, will allow a family member to take a resident home for the day.
“If they are so confident in feeling they can let (Maritime) people in, then why do they not continue to have that confidence in opening up the restrictions (for nursing homes)?" — Suzanne Steele
Both women resent the fact Newfoundland and Labrador will open its borders with the rest of Atlantic Canada on Friday, while care home visits are still restrictive.
“If they are so confident in feeling that they can let (Maritime) people in, then why do they not continue to have that confidence in opening up the restrictions or loosening the restrictions to some degree?” Steele said.
On Tuesday, Premier Dwight Ball said the so-called Atlantic Bubble and seniors care are “completely different issues.”
“We don’t expect to see a big spike in travellers in terms of the number of people coming to our province,” he said.
But Health Minister Dr. John Haggie admitted the closure of long-term care homes has been the hardest decision of all those made during the pandemic.
He also hinted at further changes to visitation restrictions being made within the next week.
In a statement Friday, Eastern Health said it is also aware of the toll on care home residents and their families.
“When we receive updated direction regarding visitation at our facilities and other public health measures, we will communicate these changes to the public,” the authority said.
Peter Jackson is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter covering health for The Telegram