Moving into a retirement home now? Yes! Here's why

Despite COVID-19, retirement communities are still wonderful places

In the COVID-19 pandemic, the senior care home industry has endured untold harm to its popular perception. People may have doubts about a move into senior living, understandably, although the safety, health and security of seniors is the highest priority of people who work in retirement homes. Here, we want to remind you that when people move into retirement homes, they find rejuvenation and renewed joy in life

Social isolation measures instituted around the world have negatively impacted all of us. Life is not much different for people living in independent or assisted living than for anyone else. In many respects, the lives of seniors in retirement communities remain better than alternatives like living in an outdated family home, or in apartment buildings or condos, where they are surrounded by people with whom they share little in common. Below this look at senior living's prevailing benefits, we also want to remind people of the many noteworthy differences between retirement homes and long-term care

Retirement homes: still the best place to be

Because retirement homes are privately funded and run, they offer advantages over any alternative way of living.  Here's a look at all the benefits offered in Canada's finest retirement communities. 

Staff and support

Many seniors move into a retirement home as a way of keeping their independence. Housekeeping and meal preparation are all handled by others. This removes many potentially harmful situations for them. What’s more, personal health crises can be easily averted, since care staff is on hand. People are not alone if they have a sudden health crisis, where any problem is dealt with immediately and professionally and given the proper, immediate medical attention.

Cleanliness and disinfection

Disinfecting and cleaning surfaces alone in your own home can be challenging, and disinfection is a key to keeping the virus from spreading. Retirement homes work under outbreak protocols. They vigilantly clean and disinfect suites and common spaces and institute other measures that go above and beyond government directives. The availability of staff hired to do these tasks and perform them professionally makes retirement homes safer than many people’s houses.   

Unique accessibility and safety

Further to discussions above, fall risks and other household injury risks (for example burns while cooking, etc.) are no longer a threat to anyone living in a retirement home. They no longer need to go up and down stairs, carrying a laundry basket and heavy cleaning supplies. People like Reg, at Credit River in Mississauga, are still happy, living in a place where stairs are a thing of the past, and his bad knees are no bother. 

We miss visits from children, grandchildren and old friends. However, we are a happy bunch and well blessed to be living in such vibrant and safely-run communities.

Healthy corrective to social isolation

Social isolation and social distancing exacerbates the unhealthy loneliness of seniors who choose to live on their own. Seniors in retirement homes always have “friends just outside the door” whom they can call and speak with, giving each other sympathy and moral support, even as they face the same challenges and self-isolating, as we all do. Staff are also part of their social circle. In a community, seniors still make many daily connections and have friendly, fulfilling interactions with those around them. There are still celebrations and other events. Access to protected, outdoor locations like enclosed courtyards permits friends to connect regularly while still maintaining social distancing.   

Separation from the outside world reduces exposure 

Seniors in a retirement home actually benefit from some reduced exposure to risk, because they never need to go out. Public places are where the risk of community transmission is highest. In many retirement homes, all the amenities within the community provide all the daily entertainment needed. Food is shipped into the home and handled by staff who follow strict sanitary protocols. Fitness and entertainment opportunities in-house fill seniors’ days as well or better than they do for anyone living anywhere else.

Long-term care vs. retirement homes

In the COVID-19 crisis, Canadians’ attention has been drawn to long-term care (LTC) homes, where a significant percentage of fatalities have occurred. Unfortunately, many still consider long-term care synonymous with retirement homes, though there are significant differences between the two. For those considering a move or care, here’s an abbreviated look at how long-term care (aka nursing homes) is markedly different from retirement living. 

Health vulnerability

In long term care, people are naturally more vulnerable. They are there because of weakened health or suffering from disorders that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19 and infections. Many are cognitively impaired and cannot identify their symptoms, so they have been unable to protect themselves. Writing in the National Post, Randall Denley proposes, a “more accurate term for long-term care would be end-of-life care.” 

In contrast, seniors move into independent living and even assisted living simply because it is better than being on their own. People move into independent living (often with minimal health problems) to live amongst peers or as part of a couple where only one needs assistance. In assisted living, most seniors need help with only one or two activities of daily living (such as bathing or feeding) and are otherwise healthy and independent. 

Placement vs. choice

Long-term-care is administered by provincial governments across the country. Seniors meet assessment requirements set by the province, and are then placed into long-term care on a first-come, first-served basis, based on an urgent need for immediate help. Most often, there are waiting lists to get into these facilities. In addition, there’s noteworthy variation in the quality of facilities, such as age of the building, number of people per suite, staff-to-resident, and more. One anonymous senior care administrator admits, “It’s just how it is. Not all long-term care homes are the same.” 

Desirable options are limited. Consequently, families delay a move, because they want their loved one in a facility most to their liking. They will put themselves on a waiting list, specific to a long-term care home they want for their loved one, as seen in the province of Ontario. 

In contrast, retirement homes are populated by those who choose to be there. Seniors in independent living like the fact that they don’t have to do any more housekeeping, cooking, and dishes. They stay for the communal lifestyle. This is more appreciated over time, and many are surprised at how much more joyful life is, in community than when they were living on their own.

Number of people per room

In long-term care homes, private suites are seldom available. Where they are, families pay more for private suites as they become open, although availability of private suites is always limited. 

In retirement homes, people pay for a suite, where they live alone or as a couple. As such, suites have the same privacy as any apartment. Residents can choose to stay in their suite as much as they deem necessary, under normal circumstances. The communities themselves tend to be more spacious, and up-to-date in construction standards. 

Great differences in common space

The issue of overcrowding in long-term care extends to shared or common space, such as hallways and corridors. Many long-term care homes were built in decades past, when accessibility design had not yet progressed to where it is now. Consequently, long-term care homes tend to have narrower passageways of eight feet wide or less. In this situation, keeping social distance from those you pass in the hallway is plainly difficult.  

Common areas in many retirement homes on offer much more room. Many retirement homes feature an array of common areas that may include several lounges, a pub, a bistro, and more. 

Contact with care staff

Seniors in long-term care require contact with care staff, of course. Personal support workers do an incredible job, and in the face of the pandemic, these workers have been very vulnerable. However, the fact is that they often work part-time in care communities, and many have had to hold down more than one job to make ends meet. The rules around this have changed since the initial outbreak, but in the first few months of the crisis, community transfer by multi-location workers was isolated as a contributing factor to high mortality rates in long-term care communities. 

Many residents in independent living retirement homes will have little need for contact with care staff or other staff. Under normal circumstances, people will be friendly with anyone within the community, of course.  In assisted living, they will need to work with care workers, of course. 

Staff-to-resident ratios

Subject to limited operational budgets, many long-term care facilities have less staff, with more people crowded into the facility.

Staffing levels are often notably higher in retirement homes. The staff-to-resident ratio is likely to be much more favourable in assisted living and memory care in a private retirement home.  

“We need to do better” for seniors in long-term care

These are just some of the isolated factors that make long-term care seniors significantly more vulnerable than people in retirement communities.This is not to criticize or denigrate anyone associated with the long-term care industry in Canada. It’s simply that long-term care is beholden to government budgets, which limits resources. These are also prone to cutbacks. 

In the wake of the crisis, we hope our society puts more emphasis on protecting those most vulnerable (notwithstanding that these are indeed "end of life care," per Denley). For many years, problems with long-term care have been understood, and not enough has been done. Cracks in the system have not been fixed. Colin Furness, a University of Toronto specialist in infection control puts it as well as anyone ever has: “We spend lavishly on hospitals, but we don’t spend on long-term care.” 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admitted on April 23rd, "Right now, we're seeing terrible tragedies in long-term care facilities across the country. We can do better. We need to do better. Because we are failing our parents, our grandparents, our elders — the greatest generation who built this country.”

The failures in the long-term care system are more apparent now than ever, and others across the country have no recourse but to admit that things need to change.  "I recognize the system is broken and we are going to fix the system," said Ontario Premier Doug Ford the same week.

In mid-May, Ford announced an 'independent commission' into long-term care. (Later that month, he was shocked by "the worst, most heart-wrenching report" by the military, on conditions in those homes.) Critics point out that there already was a recent inquiry into long-term care, with a final report released in July of 2019. The report included staffing recommendations, early warning protocols and other security measures that critics say would go a long way to improving the safety of seniors in LTC.* 

Nevertheless, painful lessons are still being learned. “Going forward in the weeks and months to come, we will all have to ask tough questions about how it came to this," as Trudeau said. What questions are eventually asked, and what steps will finally be taken, we look forward to seeing.

*Editor's update: as of 2021, he has not yet "fixed [much of ] the system."  

Sources and further reading

"The truth about long-term care outbreaks isn't really about 'greedy' owners and mistreated staff." Randall Denley. The National Post.

"Long-term care homes with the most coronavirus deaths in Canada." Olivia Bowden. Global News. 

"Why Ontario’s Long-Term Care Homes Were Short-Staffed Long Before Coronavirus." Emma Paling.

"Can this pandemic be the crisis that finally forces us to fix long-term care?" Aaron Wherry.

Public Inquiry into the Safety and Security of Residents in the Long-Term Care Homes System. Gillese, Eileen E., Commissioner. Released July 2019.

"Why do long-term care homes have more coronavirus outbreaks than hospitals?" Olivia Bowden. Global News. Posted May 27, 2020

Why do long-term care homes have more coronavirus outbreaks than hospitals?
By Olivia Bowden Global News
Posted May 27, 2020

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