Coronavirus: Isolation taking a toll on mental health of Sask. seniors, some experts say

WATCH: Following the latest round of care home visitor restrictions, some families worry about their loved one's well-being, with the National Institute on Ageing saying many seniors are suffering.

With 29 Saskatchewan long-term care facilities seeing positive cases of COVID-19 in the past two weeks, the province has banned all visitation in retirement homes.

But some families and advocates are calling for change, saying the mental health of seniors is deteriorating.

For the past two years, Helen Weninger’s 90-year-old mother has lived in a long-term care facility in Warman.

Weninger said before COVID-19, she used to make the roughly three-hour trip from Regina each week to visit her mom. Now, she said, she hasn’t seen her since October.

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“She has declined since the summer, especially after the shutdown now. Mentally, she does come in and out and does realize that her children don’t come to see her anymore,” Weninger said.

“She’s expressed many times that she has nothing to live for.”

While the rise in COVID-19 cases has prompted tougher restrictions from the province, some experts say there needs to be a balance.

“While we are so busy trying to protect (seniors) from COVID, they might end up dying of isolation and loneliness and we have started hearing cases from people saying, ‘I want to die,'” said Dr. Samir Sinha, the director of Health Policy Research for the National Institute on Ageing, and the director of geriatrics for the Sinai Health System.

The National Institute on Ageing has been tracking COVID-19 across the country and the toll it’s taken on retirement homes.

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Sinha said while provinces like Ontario and Quebec have resumed visitation, in provinces like Saskatchewan with bans in place, seniors end up suffering.

“Even during an outbreak, we’re still saying that family members should be able to come in as long as they are — like the staff — appropriately wearing PPE and following infection and prevention protocols,” Sinha said.

“Certainly in jurisdictions where we continue to ban visitors and not allow family caregivers in, what we’ve really seen are the consequences of significant issues of loneliness, isolation, people not eating as well, their care needs are not being met and significant decline in people’s health and wellbeing.”

Sinah added that it’s also important to remember that both residents and families have rights.

“In Ontario for example it’s enshrined in legislation in our long-term care acts that residents have the right to receive visitors for example and the key is right now, often we’ve actually been trampling on the human rights of individuals,” Sinah said.

“People might say look I’m willing to get COVID, I don’t mind taking the extra risk of having my family members come visit me and of course what we have to think about is balancing the rights of the individual versus the rights of all their neighbours.”

When it comes to risk, Sinah said the myCOVID19VisitRisk Decision Aid is a new tool developed in collaboration with Ryerson University and The National Institute on Ageing. It can help users identify and calculate the risks involved in visiting other people during the pandemic.

In July, the National Institute on Ageing gave guidance to all provinces with information on how families can be welcomed into long-term care facilities during the ongoing health crisis.

Still, Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, said community transmission is currently too high to allow visitation.

“When the transmission goes up, unfortunately, some restrictions do have to be put in place. But obviously, it’s a dynamic situation,” Shahab said.

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Premier Scott Moe added that the hope is by Christmas, perhaps some visitation will be allowed, but he said right now the province is not at that point.

“Some of the most trying decision points that we have come to, for myself, have been those around our long-term care homes, our loved ones, our family members who are in those homes and not only the health of them in particular but the health of the whole long-term care home and ultimately the health of our health-care system. These measures are necessary,” said Premier Scott Moe.

As for Weninger, she is calling for immediate action so she can see her mom in person again before it’s too late.

“At this point, we are ready to do whatever it takes to keep them going and feel like they have something to live for,” Weninger said.

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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