Investigating connections between COVID-19 and long-term care facilities

As Canada has navigated the life-altering challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of long-term care homes has frequently come into question. Occupied by many of the country’s eldest citizens, these facilities have become a staple in the conversation surrounding COVID-19. This is not only due to their occupants being amongst the most vulnerable to the virus, but also because the conditions in which seniors are receiving care leave much to be desired.

Pat Armstrong
Pat Armstrong

Department of Sociology professor Pat Armstrong has done extensive research on the shortcomings of long-term care in Canada and other countries. Many of the journal articles she has published in recent months have revealed details which help to paint the picture of the unique relationship between this facet of healthcare and COVID-19.

Armstrong highlights several flaws which must be addressed in the long-term care facility infrastructure going forward, beyond this moment in time. Most notably, she argues that the for-profit ownership of nursing homes often contributes to negative trends in the form of lower staffing levels, poor wages and the lack of quality materials.

“COVID-19 has exposed to the public what years of research have demonstrated,” Armstrong explained. “The pandemic has made it clear that we underfund, understaff and undervalue our places for people who need 24-hour care. The public has become increasingly aware of how important families, food, laundry and cleaning are to physical and emotional health.”

In long-term care homes across Canada, nurses and personal support workers are subject to poor treatment, are not compensated fairly and are not given adequate equipment, but are still responsible for large groups of individuals with complex health conditions. Historically, many of these professionals have needed to work at multiple homes just to make ends meet.

For patients in these long-term care facilities, the consequences of the pre-existing conditions faced by staff can have fatal impacts in a time when social distancing has become integral to preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Looking ahead, there is plenty of work to be done to change the notion of “person-centred care” from a myth to a reality.

As Armstrong explains in one of her recent articles, the misconception of older patients being easier for healthcare professionals to care for has bled into the widespread misinformed understanding of nursing homes being placed on the lower end of the clinical hierarchy. The assumption implies that the care required is uncomplicated, and feeds into further misconceptions of women – many of whom are new to Canada – being equipped to handle these complex roles without the training, education or tools they need.

“Current conditions in nursing homes provide a classic example of systemic discrimination. Armstrong said. “We need a federal labour force strategy that provides funding to provinces and territories. We need better standards for working conditions and education of staff. We need employment that offers decent wages, benefits, mental health counselling, and the proper supplies. Because the conditions of work and care are so intertwined, we’ve ended up in this situation.”

To learn more about Armstrong’s findings on the subject, read her recently published works, including “What’s Missing from Discussions on Nursing Homes,” “Restoring Trust: COVID-19 and the Future of Long-Term Care” and “Re-imagining Long-term Residential Care in the COVID-19 Crisis.”