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Okanagan senior desperate to be deemed an ‘essential’ visitor so she can visit husband in care home

A Kelowna senior is pleading to become an 'essential' visitor so she can have better access to her husband with dementia in long-term care. Global News

Audrey Kowalchuk has been married for more than 60 years.

In fact, Friday, Feb. 5, is her 66th wedding anniversary with her husband, Alexander.

“We were married 66 years ago at Immaculate Conception [church] on Sutherland Road,” she told Global News.

But the 85-year old Kelowna woman has very limited access to her life partner every week.

“Thirty minutes,” she said.

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Her 88-year old husband lives at Cottonwoods Extended Care Home, and half an hour a week is all Kowalchuk gets as his “designated” visitor.

It’s a visit that she says is especially difficult because her husband has dementia.

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“Somebody with dementia, it’s hardly much more than hello, goodbye,” she said. “Because it takes a while if I ask him a question … until he processes it, forms an answer and says it.”

She’s requested multiple times to be deemed an “essential” visitor, which allows more frequent visits but she’s been denied every time.

According to the Interior Health Authority (IHA), an essential visitor is deemed when the visitor provides care health care that staff can’t offer or for compassionate reasons, such as critical illness or end of life.

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“If all the care needs of the resident can be met with staff at the facility, they don’t necessarily need an essential visitor or a family member to come in and do the personal care,” said Dr. Albert de Villiers, IHA’s chief medical health officer.

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“If there are some gaps and they cannot necessarily get to that specific resident that has a very specific, unique need that cannot be met from within the facility, then they can bring an external person.”

De Villers said decisions on who is deemed a designated or essential visitor are left to care homes.

“Because they understand their set up,” he said. “It depends how many people they’ve got, how much room they actually have to make a visit safe.”

According to de Villers, there is a type of appeals process in place, but it can involve several steps.

“It’s difficult to overrule the facility, but if we sometimes see it from a different perspective as a medical health officer, and Dr. Henry sees it from a different perspective, we can come to a compromise at some point,” de Villers said. “So there are some ways to actually get past this.”

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While visitation restrictions may also be loosened once the vaccination rollout is complete, Kowalchuk said even if her husband survives until then, he may no longer be the same person.

“He’s an end-stage, according to his doctor, dementia,” Kowalchuk said. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to mentally reach him and communicate at all with him by that time.”

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A reality that for Kowalchuk is agonizing to accept.

“It’s really, really hard,” she said.

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