COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on congregate care settings, not just in terms of the rapid spread of the virus but also in the banning of visitors, including those who had been active participants in the care or support of a loved one. While exceptions have been made, the ability to visit and care for loved ones in congregate care settings has been severely hampered.
A new bill introduced by Ontario NDP MPP Lisa Gretzky is looking to fix this and to set up the province for a better response in future crisis situations. Bill 203, the More Than a Visitor Act (Caregiving in Congregate Care Settings), recognizes the value of informal care in formal care settings. The majority Conservative government in Ontario lent its support to the bill, allowing it to pass second reading and move to a committee review.
This excellent bill applies not only to long-term care homes, but also to hospices, retirement homes, hospitals, and residential group homes, among other things. This bill, if passed, will allow parents to visit disabled children, children to visit ageing or disabled parents, spouses to visit in hospitals, and give suffering or dying people physical, tangible support – even during a pandemic.
The preamble of the bill specifies that persons receiving care should “not be prevented from accessing their designated caregivers, especially in times of crisis or emergency” and calls on the province to find ways to “safely facilitate this.” This is exactly the kind of response we hope to see across Canada in response to lessons learned during the COVID pandemic.
This bill does not just count someone who provides regular unpaid physical care and support as a caregiver, but also someone who shares an emotional bond with the person receiving care. Family members, friends, and neighbours are all specifically mentioned. More than one person can be designated as a caregiver for a person receiving care or support services, an important addition to ensure physical, emotional, and spiritual needs can all be met. As we said in our policy report, staff in these settings rightly remain professional caregivers, while informal family and community support should satisfy emotional, social, and spiritual needs.
This proposed bill gives the government of Ontario one year to come up with a plan and requires them to also “safely reintegrate designated caregivers that were excluded because of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Along with that, the bill calls for “improve[d] respect for the role of the designated caregiver within congregate care settings and to develop and implement a caregiving strategy in consultation with specified stakeholders.” This recognizes what we said in our Elder Care policy report, that family is a “shadow workforce” in these types of settings. They are fully capable of being trained in necessary protocols to ensure resident safety and having them trained in this way can be a significant support to formal staff.
For obvious reasons, this bill was supported by all parties before being sent to The Standing Committee for Social Policy. Unfortunately, the bill has stalled out in the committee for the last number months. We feel that this bill ought to be dealt with in a timely manner as this issue is so important and remains an ongoing one.
If you live in Ontario, we encourage you to reach out to your MPP using EasyMail and express your support and thankfulness for this bill. Encourage them to do what they can to see to it that this bill is studied in the committee soon. If you live in another province, consider sending this draft bill to your provincial representative and asking them to champion something similar in your province. One of the recommendations in our recent Elder Care policy report is for exactly this type of policy – a policy that recognizes family or friend caregivers as an essential part of congregate care settings. May this bill be a blessing to Ontario and serve as a model to follow across Canada.