When 91-year-old Gerald Burke was first moved into long-term care, there was no bed available in his Newfoundland hometown of Grand Falls-Windsor.
He spent nine weeks in a nursing home out of town, forcing his son John and other family members to drive more than an hour each way, to see him. John says face-to-face visits were limited because Gerald told them not to come at night, fearing the risk of moose collisions.
“You’re over here, worrying that he’s gonna die over there, alone. He’s over there, worrying that his children are on the highway,” John said.
After over two months of long drives, he was moved into a bed closer to home, but it doesn’t always end that way.
Catherine McCullough, known to everyone as “Kay”, was in a nursing home in Buchans, about an hour-and-a-half away from family.
Her daughter, Gail, knew Kay had taken a turn for the worse, but, was told there was no need make the trip that night.
Only hours later, her mother died, at 85, leaving bittersweet memories of a woman who loved camping, fishing, and her large, extended family.
“If that had have been here, in five minutes, two minutes, I’m down to the hospital. I would have been there,” Gail.
Being apart, in her mother’s final moments, brings her unshakeable sorrow.
“The hardest part is that she made me promise that she wouldn’t pass away in Buchans, without family, alone.”
WATCH: B.C. health care under threat from migrating seniors
These are not isolated cases; the population of Newfoundland and Labrador is both elderly, and, sparsely concentrated and beds in nursing homes are literally few and far between.
In Central Newfoundland, 16 people have been sent away to other communities, in less than two years. In the Western Region, there have been 70 cases, in less than three years. There are currently 30 people waiting to be moved out, in Eastern Newfoundland. The Labrador side of the province is largely unaffected.
Seniors’ advocate Ralph Morris calls the problem inexcusable.
“In some cases, government has, in fact, created what I’d call elder abuse, by just having people move to those first available beds that are out there,” Morris told Global News.
There’s no easy solution. But, despite a crippling operating deficit, the provincial government says it will spend what it takes, to create more long-term care beds.
“We estimate we need anywhere between 400 and 720 extra beds,” said Health Minister John Haggie.
It could be years before new buildings open, but that’s little comfort for Canadians who need care, immediately
“It’s too late for mom,” Gail McCullough said. “But, I’m doing this for my friends’ parents and anyone else out there who’s got to go through this.”