The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating toll for those residing in the long-term care in Canada. In an effort to keep residents and staff safe from COVID-19, early in the pandemic public health measures were put in place to restrict visitation with residents. Later into the pandemic, public health measures were eased to allow “support visits” whereby a designated family/friend is allowed access to assist with care tasks. Long-term care homes were tasked with implementing this practice, facing operational and physical space challenges. The implementation of support visitations has impacted the residents, family members and staff and has caused additional stresses and concerns.

A team of researchers led by Dr. Janice Keefe, Professor in Gerontology and Director of the NS Centre of Aging, Mount Saint Vincent University have recently received funding ($149,984) to study the implementation of policies that support and hinder families as partners in care during COVID-19 pandemic.

The study involves partnerships with six publicly funded long-term care homes in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island which are implementing support visitations in line with their province’s public health directive: NS-Designated Family Caregiver and PEI-Partner in Care. The study results are intended to inform similar initiatives within these provinces and other jurisdictions.

The research team represents multiple disciplines (gerontology, implementation science, medicine, political science, family studies and health). The researchers will be supported by the perspectives of several individuals with lived experience as a family caregiver.

“Not being able to support our relatives in long term care, especially during the uncertainty of the pandemic, has had an emotional toll on families” said Heather Fifield, Chair of Harbourview Haven’s Family Council. “I, and other family representatives, are pleased to be part of the team working to better understand what it is like to be a Designated Family Caregiver or Partner in Care and how the experience can be enhanced.”

“This research is timely as public health measures continue to evolve,” said Dr. Janice Keefe. “Our research findings will be used to inform implementation and sustainability of support visitation interventions in LTC settings across Canada.”

The study starts immediately and involves interviews with administrators and staff involved in implementing the policies to identify the barriers and facilitators as public health measures evolve. Interviews with individuals approved in these roles will also be conducted to understand their experience and impact on them and residents. “Doing research during the pandemic can be challenging for our homes,” said Andrew MacDougall, Provincial Director of Long Term Care, Health PEI, “but sharing our experience and learning from others is critical during this time to ensure our residents and their families have optimal quality of life. This research will not only inform strategies for future waves of COVID-19 but also other common outbreaks that occur in our settings that necessitate visitor restrictions.”

This project is funded by the Canadian Foundation for Healthcare Improvement and is part of the Strengthening Pandemic Preparedness in LTC and Retirement Homes plan. The Government of Canada has recently invested more than $1.8 million to fund 14 Implementation Science Teams of researchers from across Canada.