VANCOUVER -- B.C.'s seniors advocate says she wants to support care homes to be able to safely allow family members of seniors to visit loved ones in care homes.

Isobel Mackenzie said that as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it’s clear that visitor protocols won’t be going back to normal any time soon. But, she said, there needs to be some way for visits to resume so family members can help seniors in care homes and also provide “eyes and ears” on care home operations.

It’s a question that B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, has also been looking at, Mackenzie said.

“One of the very important pieces is that family members are, first of all, able to support their loved one in the care home, and secondly are able to be reassured of what is happening in care homes by being the eyes and see and the ears that hear” what is going on in the care homes, Mackenzie said.

Because visits to care homes have been severely restricted due to the risk of spreading COVID-19 to vulnerable seniors, many people are also dying alone if they contract the illness.

Mackenzie said there are exemptions to the provincial health order that banned visitors, including for palliative or compassionate care reasons.

She said she would be speaking to long-term care homes to encourage them to find a way to allow family to visit when a resident is dying. Mackenzie acknowledged that could be difficult for care homes where there are active outbreaks, but the majority of B.C.’s care homes and assisted-living homes do not have COVID-19 outbreaks.

“I've heard of some care homes simply are not aware that there is this exemption – they think there is a blanket prohibition. So again, getting that clear message out is important,” Mackenzie said.

“If this new normal is in place for a year or more, how do we find a way to allow people to see their spouse, to see their adult child?”

Mackenzie also announced $500,000 in extra funding for a telephone and online help line for family caregivers of seniors.

She said what family caregivers really need right now is a break from the task of providing elder care, but that is very difficult to provide because of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Mackenzie said the new funding would go to increase services to a telephone hotline, which people can access at 211 or 1-877-520-3267.

Seniors who need help can also call 211, Mackenzie said. 

Long-term care homes have been hit hard by the novel coronavirus pandemic, with outbreaks occurring at over 20 homes in B.C. Nearly half of all deaths from COVID-19 in Canada have been linked to long-term care homes.

The situation has highlighted vulnerabilities in long-term care, with many care workers employed at multiple facilities in order to make enough money to pay for living expenses. The B.C. government has committed to pay workers more, and has put new rules in place to prevent staff from working at more than one facility and spreading the virus from one facility to another.

Earlier this year, Mackenzie released a report that highlighted some of those same concerns: specifically, about a wide gap in wages depending on whether staff worked at public or private care homes, as well as the precarity of work that led many home care staff to work at several different sites.

Mackenzie said the pandemic had put a “spotlight” on those existing issues.

“There are some initiatives that have been put in place around care homes, most particularly around this wage parity, looking at full-time jobs, how we can try and make workers be at one care home as much as possible, and how we can make reduce the amount of turnover and casual,” she said.