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‘It’s a death trap’: Families horrified by lack of air conditioning in long-term care homes

Long-term care facility residents suffer in extreme heat
ABOVE: Long-term care facility residents suffer in extreme heat.

Nick Puopolo’s 85-year-old mother is bedridden in a long-term care facility in Vaughan, Ont. During the heat wave that hit southern Ontario last week, he said his mother was stuck in a room without a fan or air conditioner.

He called her living condition a “death trap.”

Read more: Ontario Premier Doug Ford blasts long-term care homes without air conditioning

Puopolo’s mother Saveria resides at Woodbridge Vista Care Community, a long-term care home that does not have air conditioning. The facility also has an outbreak of the coronavirus in the spring, causing 31 residents to die. Saveria did not contract the virus.

When Puopolo went to go visit his mother on Friday, he measured the temperature of her room and said it was 28 C with 47 per cent humidity.

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“We brought two small fans in order to try and get the air moving around,” he said. “She is bedridden so brought her ice cream and water to try and cool her down.”

Nick Puopolo recorded the temperature of his mother’s room on July 10.
Nick Puopolo recorded the temperature of his mother’s room on July 10. Nick Puopolo

Puopolo has been complaining to the facility about the lack of air conditioning for four years now, but nothing has changed, he said.

It’s a problem Ontario Premier Doug Ford addressed last week, criticizing the long-term care homes that aren’t providing air conditioning.

“I’d like to get these owners who don’t put air conditioning — I’d like to stick them in the room for 24 hours at 30-degree heat (and) see how they like it. Or put their parents in there,” Ford said. “This is all about the dollars.”

Ford vowed last Wednesday to make air conditioning mandatory in long-term care homes but stopped short of providing an exact timeline.

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Sienna Senior Living, which owns Woodbridge Vista Care Community, posted a statement about the lack of air conditioning on its website on July 9.

“Where necessary, residents may be temporarily moved to cooler rooms and for residents who cannot leave their rooms for medical reasons, we are ensuring they are provided with increased fluids, loose clothing and portable fans. We will also be monitoring room temperatures on each floor around the clock so we can act immediately should humidex levels increase,” the statement read.

Nick Puopolo (left) and his mother Saveria Puopolo (right).
Nick Puopolo (left) and his mother Saveria Puopolo (right). Nick Puopolo

Ontario’s Long-Term Care Act does not require homes to have air conditioning but requires them to have a designated cooling area for every 40 residents.

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But during the coronavirus pandemic, this is difficult, as seniors have to practise physical distancing and many have to stay in their rooms. For seniors who are bedridden, like Puopolo’s mother, the cooling rooms are not an option.

And according to Glen Kenny, a human and environmental physiology professor at the University of Ottawa, cooling rooms do not work during heat waves.

Lack of fans, AC and cooling rooms

Kenny, who has studied the effect of heat stress on elderly people, says seniors have a difficult time regulating their body heat.

“What this means is that the body just continues to store heat throughout the day,” he explained. “Because (elderly people) have an impaired ability to dissipate heat, they are not as responsive at early stages of exposure to it.”

Read more: Children, the elderly most at risk during heat waves

This means many seniors are very susceptible to heatstroke, which can cause low blood pressure and heart failure.

“Even with a cooling room, the challenge is that it may give them a two-hour reprieve, but the core temperature increases very quickly after they get back to their room again. It reassumes the same level as if they were in the heat for a prolonged period,” he explained.

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Jane Meadus, a lawyer with the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly in Ontario, said many residents cannot leave their rooms to go to the cooling rooms anyway because of the coronavirus.

“In the best of times, many people don’t use these rooms, as many residents are bedridden or have dementia and don’t even know they are hot. These rooms often double down as dining rooms, too, so you have to ask to use them ahead of time,” she said.

Canada’s long-term care home deaths double the average of other developed nations: report
Canada’s long-term care home deaths double the average of other developed nations: report

“Many of these cooling rooms are being set aside for staff to put on and off gowns, as you have to put on proper equipment during this pandemic.”

The use of fans is also a problem. Some long-term care facilities aren’t allowing residents to use fans as it could spread the virus, Meadus said. That means some residents do not have access to a fan, air conditioning, or cooling rooms during a heat wave.

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But the lack of cooling is nothing new. Every year, Meadus gets calls from families about the heat in long-term care facilities. Many families who put their loved ones in these homes just assume they’re air-conditioned, she said, but it isn’t until the summer that they realize it is not mandatory.

“I am shocked that the government does not require this. You don’t have to ask is there a furnace and heat in the winter, so why not air conditioning?” Meadus said.

Meadus, who has visited many residents in Ontario’s long-term care facilities, said the temperature in some rooms can be unbearable, even for her.

Read more: ‘Brutal’ heat at Strasbourg, Sask., senior care home has nurse pleading for help

“On occasion when I’ve had to go into these rooms on hot days I could not stand being there. I remember being in one room and had to ask if the resident could borrow a fan. And even with a fan, I could not have sat in the room for a short period of time. It was unbearable,” she said.

Many long-term care homes in Ontario are older facilities that don’t have the design infrastructure for air conditioning — but even new homes lack it, Meadus said.

“It’s a matter of cost, I think paying for AC can be expensive,” she said. “There isn’t a quick-fix solution to his problem. Short term, we have to figure out how to cool down these homes, and long term we have to ensure that all new homes being built have AC.”

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Problem across Canada

Ontario isn’t the only province that has come under fire for the heat conditions in some long-term care homes.

Some relief coming for Montreal-area long-term care homes amid unseasonably warm weather
Some relief coming for Montreal-area long-term care homes amid unseasonably warm weather

Roughly two-thirds of Quebec’s long-term care rooms do not have air conditioning, according to the province, and the usual practice of designated cooling areas has been complicated by fears of further spreading the novel coronavirus. 

Like Ontario, Quebec has experienced a brutal heat wave this summer. The province also does not require air conditioners in seniors’ homes.

Read more: Residents at Maimonide in Côte Saint-Luc are suffering through the heat, families say

In an email to Global News, a spokesperson from Quebec’s minister responsible for seniors said the province has been adding more air conditioning units into their homes.

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“When the CHSLDs (long-term care homes) are not fully air-conditioned, cool refuge areas are available for residents for their comfort,” a spokesperson said.

Global News reached out to other provinces across Canada asking about its cooling mandate in seniors’ homes during the summer.

Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Health said guidelines state a temperature range of 22 to 24 C should be maintained in long-term care homes. If a home is unable to maintain this temperature range then it’s recommended an air conditioning unit be installed.

Impact of extreme temperatures on vulnerable people
Impact of extreme temperatures on vulnerable people

Alberta Health told Global News the province does not require that long-term care homes have air conditioners, but it does require that facilities ensure a “temperature (heating, cooling, and ventilation) is maintained that supports the safety of all residents and the comfort of the majority of residents.”

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Global News reached out to British Columbia and Manitoba about their cooling protocols in seniors’ homes but did not hear back at the time of publication.

— With files fromthe Canadian Press