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Coronavirus: Supporting seniors hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic

Fear for seniors during COVID-19 pandemic
WATCH ABOVE: Seniors are at an increased risk of serious complication and death due to COVID-19. There have been outbreaks in nursing homes across Canada. And as Caryn Lieberman reports, difficult conversations are happening about how to care for seniors during this pandemic.

Edith Cohavi is 102 years old and using Facetime at her long-term care home with the help of a support worker.

She was expecting her daughter, who lives in the United States, to visit last month but the COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to that.

Seeing Suzi on Facetime is the next best thing for Cohavi.

“We implemented the face-to-family program through the iPad and now with COVID-19 happening we need family members to be in contact with their loved ones and so this is a chance for them to get to see their family member face to face and be able to talk to them,” said Kayla Johnston, manager of programs and volunteer services at The Rekai Centres.

READ MORE: Ontario reports 379 new coronavirus cases, total reaches 4,726 and 153 deaths

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There was an outbreak of COVID-19 at one of The Rekai Centres’ facilities recently and a resident died of the virus.

Dozens of long-term care homes around Ontario have reported cases of COVID-19, including the Pinecrest Nursing Home in Bobcaygeon where more than 20 patients have died of the virus so far.

“What we’re seeing with the older population, in your 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, your death rate goes from three to eight to 15 to 24 per cent and in fact people in nursing homes if they get it, they’re reporting death rates of 33 per cent,” explained Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at the Sinai Health System.

He said older adults are more vulnerable to serious complications from the virus because of their weakened immune systems.

“It’s tough. The patients I care for every day, they’re in the line of fire. They’ve got a greater risk of dying,” he said.

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“Are they scared? Absolutely. Are they more isolated from everybody else in society right now? Absolutely because we’re telling them to do that and we’re not allowing them the interactions with the grandkids.”

Next week, Dr. Sinha will volunteer his services at three downtown Toronto hospitals for older patients in distress who may require his specialist expertise. He told Global News that is when he is expecting the hospitals to begin to fill.

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It has been particularly hard on Dr. Sinha as he is passionate about caring and advocating for his elderly patients.

“It’s heartbreaking to see a population that is being so predominantly victimized by this particular illness and it’s also sad to think that we may not have enough resources to support all of them and that really starts to weigh on you,” he said.

Another factor that concerns Dr. Sinha is the number of ventilators available in Ontario.

READ MORE: Toronto recalls $200K worth of ‘poor quality’ masks distributed to long-term care homes

“We are genuinely worried that we may not have enough for everybody because we may not have gotten a good enough handle on COVID and we have more people infected than we actually know,” he noted.

This means he may need to have difficult conversations with his patients and their family members.

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“No physician ever wants to be in a situation, I don’t think any society or any family ever wants to be in a position where they have to have the conversation of who gets a ventilator and who doesn’t,” he said.

“A lot of my patients would argue that they have actually paid the most taxes out of all of us over time, and probably they’ve actually built the hospital that I’m working at with their tax dollars and they’ve probably paid for most of the vents that we’re using now too and so why shouldn’t they get their access?”

READ MORE: Ontario launches online portal to recruit health-care workers

Laura Tamblyn Watts, an advocate for seniors, pointed to tragedies in nursing homes across the country and predicted there will be more.

“It is critically important that long-term care be given the same priorities as other types of health care settings, like acute care in hospitals. We are desperate in the long-term care sector to get the personal protective equipment and the testing that we need,” she said.

Tamblyn Watts said she expects the death toll in long-term care due to COVID-19 may currently be higher than what has been reported.

“I can assure you it’s much greater than that because we are doing very little testing so anyone who has COVID-19 in long-term care can be assumed it has spread to those around them as well,” she added.

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Tamblyn Watts also pointed out it’s important to keep seniors’ spirits up during this time of physical distancing.

She encouraged window visits at long-term care facilities, video calls, such as Facetime and Skype, and creative programming to keep residents engaged.

For Edith Cohavi, who has not seen her daughter in several months and may not for several more, her chats on Facetime, thanks to the staff at Wellesley Central Place, are filling the void for now.