It’s a heartbreaking situation facing a growing number of seniors across the country; many couples are being torn apart because of health-care systems that aren’t designed to accommodate different care needs.
Martha and Willard Farnell, a Calgary couple, have been married for 66 years. The two had a six-month courtship in 1953 and have been inseparable ever since.
“I miss him,” Martha said through tears. “It’s just like my hand is cut off when he’s not there.”
Martha still lives independently, but Willard has dementia and requires long-term care. Existing facilities don’t accommodate couples with different levels of needs.
“This is what I can’t understand — why can’t I go?” Martha said. “If I can be there, I can help him and he wouldn’t be upset — he’d be so much easier to deal with.”
Since March, Willard has been at the Foothills Medical Centre, on a waiting list for a long-term care bed, which takes, on average, about eight weeks. Martha spends every day with him in his hospital room, and once he falls asleep, she goes home to their bungalow, alone.
“I keep thinking, ‘Here I am here at home, crying.’ I must have shed a river of tears now,” Martha said.
“It’s awful, I can’t talk to him and I keep thinking, ‘What is he going through? Is he waking up looking for me?’ A lot of people don’t understand.”
A spokesperson with Alberta Health Services said officials are working with the couple to find alternatives, which may mean Martha moves into her own private suite at the same facility but not in the same unit. That could take months, and possibly years.
AHS has new builds underway to give greater flexibility for couples who want to stay together.
With the growing needs of an aging population, advocates say more supports are needed for people to age in place. Cindy Bond with the Alzheimer Society of Calgary said there is a long way to go to address the gaps.
“If you yourself go home and there’s no one there and your primary role is caregiver, you lost your job — it’s devastating,” Bond said. “The transition in care can be difficult and we often see a cognitive decline initially.”
For most seniors living this reality, all they want is to have the chance to live together with the time they have left.