By Frank Bucholtz/Special to Aldergrove Star
The voices of people who live in long-term care facilities often go unheard.
This sentiment was expressed frequently during the COVID-19 pandemic, as care home residents suffered severe illness and, in cases, death from contracting the disease.
This was particularly true during 2020, before vaccines were made available. At the same time, most residents were cut off from seeing friends and family, and locked into their facilities.
COVID-19 data released by the province in January 2021 showed that 602 residents of long-term care, assisted-living, or independent-living homes died of COVID-19 – to that point. That was about 63 per cent of all 970 B.C. COVID-19 deaths at the time.
While not directly related to the pandemic, a move to comprehensively survey residents of long-term care homes by Seniors’ Advocate Isobel Mackenzie is most timely.
It will assist her office, which is an independent arm of the provincial government, to better understand some of the effects of COVID-19 in care homes and the changes implemented during the pandemic, she said.
Mackenzie’s office first conducted such a survey in 2016-17, with the help of more than 800 volunteers. She vowed, at the time, to conduct a similar survey every five years.
More than 10,000 residents were interviewed, along with another 10,000 frequent visitors, who were usually family members.
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The latest survey is already up and running, but will get underway on a large scale in January.
It will be conducted by volunteers. Recruitment and training is already starting, said Judy Zhu, who is the engagement lead for the survey in Fraser Health Region
Helping to conduct the survey will appeal to people who are interested in seniors’ health and welfare, she said, noting a commitment of about 40 hours of volunteer work during a two-month period is needed. Volunteers will need to survey a minimum of 10 residents.
“It is an opportunity for people who care and want to give back, to get into care homes, and conduct a 45-minute survey,” Zhu explained.
“It is quite ambitious,” she said of the survey.
“We are wanting to reach every resident of the 294 long-term care homes in B.C. We will approach every resident, other than those in palliative care. Even in scenarios where residents are not communicative, we will approach them in case they want to say something.”
They also have a parallel family and frequent visitor survey planned.
The 2016-17 survey showed that many residents were eager to talk about their homes and lives, Zhu said, noting many lived fairly isolated lives and welcomed the chance to talk to a visitor who is conducting the survey.
It was an eye-opening experience for volunteers such as Jennifer Sirges, of Trail, who recounted her experience.
“The training taught me about the importance of a structured, consistent approach to survey-taking, and how to communicate gently with individuals who have a variety of frailties and vulnerabilities,” Sirges said.
“Actually going into the care homes and conducting the surveys was nerve-wracking at the beginning, but quickly proved to be immensely rewarding. I was able to set my own schedule, and loved listening to intriguing individuals with stories to tell. When my volunteer role came to an end, I felt so good about my experience that I took steps to earn my Class 4 drivers licence and applied to work with recreation programs in long-term care.”
She’s been employed in the field since early 2018, and said it “brings me great joy to spend time enriching the care experience these seniors receive.”
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The experience of Burnaby’s Claire – who surveyed residents in 2016-17 – indicates the value of conducting the survey in Cantonese.
“It is after I have taken part in surveying seniors who only speak Cantonese, and no English, that I started to realize the power of one’s own language and culture to connect people deeply, despite how brief those encounters are,” said Claire.
“When I go into the room of a Cantonese-speaking resident, I would immediately notice the box of traditional egg rolls, grandkids’ drawings with words written in Chinese, or things like that. Very often, the resident and I would start our conversation from a familiar place,” she shared.
“There are older residents who can’t speak much English and feel isolated. Simply being able to talk to someone who is willing to listen energizes them. And there are residents who have been living and working in Canada for decades and would still prefer to share their views, struggles, and wisdom in a language they feel connected to. I suppose it is the sense of shared understanding and ease of expressing oneself that provide reassurance and comfort,” Claire noted.
“It matters a lot for the residents to be truly heard. I remember there are times when I have to close an interview and step away, the resident would ask my name again, wonder when I will come back, or we would exchange some heartfelt wishes in our own language. It is this mutual connection that touches us both and makes the day a little brighter.”
The survey will not be focused on the pandemic, although a couple of questions have been added as a result of lessons learned from it.
Mackenzie‘s office did a survey in 2020 looking at immediate responses and reactions to the pandemic. That survey was more pandemic-centric and pandemic-focused, and many people in care homes, and their family members, took part.
The comprehensive resident survey uses a licensed tool from interRAI, which is used in many care centres outside B.C. It will ask questions about meals, belonging, safety, relationships, medications, activities, responsiveness of staff, home life, visitation, and communication.
It will take about 45 minutes to survey each resident.
The results of the 2023 survey will be compared with those from 2016-17, so that Mackenzie can report on what could be done better, what has worked, and what residents are saying.
The earlier survey led to a number of recommendations. To view the report which came out of that survey, see https://www.seniorsadvocatebc.ca/osa-reports/residential-care-survey/.
“We use the survey that is under licence and adapt it to best capture the experience in long-term care,” Zhu said.
Training for volunteers will take about six to eight hours. The survey will also be conducted in many languages other than English for residents who are most comfortable in other languages, and volunteers who can speak languages such as Mandarin, Punjabi and others are welcomed.
“Volunteers must be at least triple-vaccinated (against COVID-19) and have the flu shot,” Zhu said. “Each care home will have different procedures for visitors, and some will require rapid antigen testing.”
Locally in Aldergrove, for instance, volunteers are needed to visit the 88 residents at Jackman Manor to conduct the survey.
Information about joining the survey team is available at www.surveybcseniors.org or by calling the Office of the Seniors Advocate at 1-877 952-3181 or 2-1-1.
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