Ontario prepares to reopen, but self-isolation will continue for many

Millions of Ontarians over the age of 70, as well as people with underlying health conditions, are bracing for a much longer period of self-isolation, even as the rest of the province begins its first phase of reopening this week. 

“Public Health did say stay home and stay indoors, so we took that seriously,” said Roger Johnson, a 69-year-old in Ottawa taking care of his 78-year-old partner Matt Hughes, who has early signs of dementia. “Our world is much smaller.”

Hughes hasn’t left the home since March. The same is true of all the couple’s friends in the same age group. They are among millions of seniors in Ontario over the age of 70 who have been cautioned that the risks associated with the coronavirus remain high.

“I call those people every day,” said Johnson. “A lot of seniors, they don’t have a balcony to go out on. They live in small apartments.”

Johnson says he’ll continue to check in on his friends six months from now if necessary.

Hughes, who has early signs of dementia, hasn’t left the house since early March over concern about the increased risks of severe illness and death from contracting COVID-19 for seniors over 70. (Submitted by Roger Johnson)

Doug Ford, Ontario’s premier, suggested in April some members of the population may have to self-isolate until a vaccine is found. 

But last week, Barbara Yaffe,  the province’s associate chief medical officer of health, offered better prospects. 

“I don’t think it’s realistic to think that they will have to stay home for all that time — I don’t think people would want to do that.” said Yaffe. “I do think people who have underlying health conditions — particularly immunocompromised people — will have to take special care.”

That “special care” includes maintaining physical distance, wearing a mask and keeping close tabs on their health, she said.

‘Trying to calibrate’ risk

Ottawa’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Vera Etches said the future depends on what happens as the province raises restrictions on the general population.

Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s chief medical officer of health, says agencies are trying to calibrate the risks of reopening for people who are still advised to remain in self-isolation. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

“We’re just trying to calibrate, where we’re trying to balance against the increased risk of growing levels of infection as we interact with people more,” she said. “That’s why we all need to do our part, so that people who are more at risk of a negative outcome will have the opportunity to get out and about again sooner rather than later.”

Public health and community agencies are now beginning to reach out to those asked to continue self-isolation to determine how well people are coping. 

Statistic Canada reports there are 1.7 million seniors over 70 in Ontario.  Diabetes Canada estimates more than four million people in the province have, or run the risk of developing, type 1 or type 2 diabetes, one of several chronic health conditions that raise the risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19.

Mental, Physical Health 

Ottawa has created the Human Needs Task Force, which has been working with seniors, community groups, the Red Cross, and health agencies to undertake some 1,700 wellness checks, deliver food, and create opportunities for people to remain social. 

Kanata North Coun. Jenna Sudds, who heads the city’s Human Needs Task Force as part of the COVID-19 response, says isolation can take a toll on seniors. (Laura Osman/CBC)

Coun. Jenna Sudds, the task force’s chair, said it’s a big concern that so many people in the community — most on limited incomes — could face more months of self-isolation.

“I think there are many challenges,” she said, noting that many people are not getting access to regular exercise or face-to-face contact with their physicians, which is only part of their general well-being.

“I think we need to be concerned about people’s mental health. Certainly isolation takes a toll.”

As a senior on a limited income, Johnson said he’s also seen the cost of food jump, particularly when limited to food delivery or a single store within walking distance.

He said the experience of having to go to multiple stores to find missing items is fraught with fear and frustration over repeated experiences being near others not wearing masks or not taking rules of physical distancing seriously enough.

‘Making sure they’re protected’

Assessing the needs of people like Johnson has been the focus of a survey by community groups like the Glebe Centre’s Abbotsford Community Support in Ottawa.

“We want to make sure that they’re protected,” said Karen Anne Blakely, its community services director.

The centre surveyed the people already accessing services before the pandemic, and found about a third requested help including wellness checks, and help with getting groceries. But they decided to cast the net broader this week.

“Those people who are living alone and may have thought that they could be just fine for a few weeks,” she said. “Now that we’re moving on to eight weeks, people are finding it a little more difficult.”

‘We all help each other’

The centre has tripled the number of people making wellness calls. Volunteers are helping to put together food hampers, making deliveries, helping to facilitate virtual classes, and making social calls using the old-fashioned phone.

On a 10-person call arranged by the centre on Friday, CBC heard from participants who said the connection has been critical to remaining positive through self-isolation.

Two sisters visit their mother through the window at a seniors retirement residence in Mississauga, Ont., on May 14. Health officials and the government have asked that people stay inside to help curb the spread of COVID-19. Many people are still trying to find ways to connect while following the rules. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

They talked about missing hugs from their grandchildren or having lunch with friends at the community centre. 

“I think we all try to help each other,” said one caller, Frances Eisert. “It’s very very helpful.” 

“Because being with other people is what I miss the most,” added Brian Bodely.

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