Ian James visited his father at the Orchard Villa long-term care home on Wednesday and brought him outside to watch the protesters who'd gathered to call on the Ford government not to renew the licence for the home under its current ownership.
They stayed at the outskirts of the crowd, listening as people took to the mic to talk about the loved ones they lost during the pandemic and the neglect they suffered before they died. They heard from the daughter of 86-year-old Patricia Crump, who described how her mother wasted away before her death and was last heard screaming into the phone for help.
"Just screaming in pain with nobody to help her," said Diane Colangelo. "Nobody to help her."
Protesters had gathered on the vacant lot earmarked for an 87-bed expansion of the home along with a proposed 30-year licence renewal. They spilled onto the street around the old facility, infamous for the four-bed ward rooms that helped COVID-19 spread like wildfire and the cockroach infestation that was called out by the Canadian Armed Forces. Father and son listened as activists recited the statistics, that 200 of the 233 residents of the long-term care home caught COVID and 70 of them died.
"That's why I was standing over there crying, because I can't believe what these people have gone through," said Ian James. His father, Bob James, went through an ordeal during the outbreak early in the first wave. He moved from a private room to one with three others with no air conditioning and was neglected, according to his son.
"They didn't give him anything and he was stuck in there," said James. "And I was not allowed to go in and see him."
But he was among the minority that didn't get COVID, and he survived.
Ian James knew about the protest and came because he agrees with the message that the owner of Orchard Villa – the for-profit Southbridge Care Homes — and all for-profit companies, should be forced out of the long-term care sector. When he arranged for his father to go into the home he looked into all of the options, and their waiting lists, but didn't think of checking into their ownership — something he now regrets.
"They've never been punished. Nothing's been done," he said. "They get away with it. And as far as I'm concerned, they get away with murder. The neglect that people have had here, the residents that they've had to endure, during this pandemic, and even before it, just disgusts me."
For his part, Bob didn't want to talk, except to agree with his son that he'd have nothing good to say.
Another resident joined the protest near the end, assisted by her husband. She didn't want her name used and QP Briefing is withholding it and some identifying details at her request. She and her husband both called on the government to step in and ensure better care at the home and she said that problems with low staffing levels and poor quality care that she experienced during the outbreak persist today, more than a year later.
Her chief complaints are about basic hygiene and nutrition: the dishes and tables she eats at, she said, are dirty, and the home doesn't provide the kind of food she needs for her medical care. "Here, they don't care what you eat," she said.
The protest was attended by families with loved ones in long-term care as well as the Ontario Health Coalition (OHC) and flag-waving union members. Natalie Mehra, executive director of the OHC, said the group and its supporters are hoping the Ford government will find a way to proceed with the redevelopment of the home but transition its ownership and management to the Region of Durham or, failing that, another not-for-profit entity.
Cathy Parkes, who lost her father at Orchard Villa, has been in contact with both the Region of Durham and the Ford government advocating for that change in ownership.
"Today, I asked the Ford government, I ask Doug Ford, I ask the Minister of Long-Term Care MPP Rob Phillips, for once, put actions behind your words," she said, to cheers. "Southbridge Care does not deserve a new licence. They do not deserve 87 beds."
QP Briefing has reached out to Phillips' office for comment.
Meanwhile, the NDP has released a campaign pledge to phase out for-profits from long-term care and home care. NDP MPP Jennifer French was on hand for the protest.
Ontario Liberal Steven Del Duca has said in the past "it is beyond the pale" that Orchard Villa is being awarded new beds, but a spokesperson declined to offer a commitment Wednesday that if a Liberal government is elected it will take action to halt it.
"We’ve been clear that the status quo isn’t acceptable, and the Ontario Liberal Party will have more to say in the coming months on eldercare as we roll out our plan," said Will Wuehr.
"It’s increasingly clear that profit and care aren’t compatible, and an Ontario Liberal government will take real action on solving the challenges in long-term care," said Del Duca in an emailed statement. "While Doug Ford is doubling down on for-profit homes that failed our loved ones in their care, Ontario Liberals are working on a comprehensive plan to fix and improve eldercare."
For its part, Southbridge has defended its handling of the outbreak.
“While staffing was a challenge at Orchard Villa during the pandemic, this was an experience shared by many homes within the long-term care sector," Candace Chartier, chief seniors’ advocate and strategic partnerships officer, said in a recent statement to QP Briefing.
Chartier also addressed the allegations that residents were neglected, and not properly fed or hydrated.
"All residents’ hydration and nutrition are tracked and documented daily," she said. "In instances where a resident may have a complex health issue, such as dementia, he or she at times may refuse to eat or drink. As it would be inappropriate to attempt to force a resident to receive care, staff members will re-engage with the resident at a later time. By documenting these interactions daily, we are able to identify patterns where care may be consistently refused and make adjustments as necessary.”
Chartier said the home has checked its records and residents were regularly offered food or water.
But that's something some families at the protest dispute. Parkes, for instance, alleges the home reported to her that her father ate 75 per cent of his meal on a day where she watched him through the window, but she says he was unresponsive that day and could not eat.
Parkes is also concerned the home waited too long to request extra help when staffing levels began to collapse. She said she was told by a nurse that staffing had become a severe problem on April 11, 2020, following the outbreak that began about two weeks prior, and she believes the staffing problems began before that.
She called the home all weekend and was told by another nurse on the morning of April 13 the home was severely understaffed. Parkes began reaching out to government officials all day — at which point she was assured by the home's management that everything was fine.
Four days later, Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy, who represents the riding, returned her call and told her that the home hadn't asked for help until April 17. His spokesperson confirmed that he did refer to that date in his conversation with Parkes.
The minister "was referring to the date a letter from Southbridge Care homes was sent to the (Local Health Integration Network) requesting assistance with a COVID outbreak,” said spokesperson Emily Hogeveen.
For its part, Southbridge said in a statement, "As soon as the home went into outbreak in early April 2020, we reached out immediately and frequently to our community health partners."
When asked to clarify, Chartier said it began "reaching out to community health and staffing partners for support" on April 13.
"Our records also confirm that an update on our efforts was provided on April 17 2020 to MPP Bethlenfalvy as the Member of Provincial Parliament for the riding of Pickering-Uxbridge,” said Chartier.
A delay — of weeks or days — in getting staffing help to the home would have a devastating effect, said Parkes.
"I think the evidence showed certainly that, especially with seniors, they were catching it, and it was progressing very quickly," she said, adding she doesn't trust the assurances from the home. "I think there was false information coming. And I think it was out of fear, not wanting to be publicly known."
Clarification: This story was changed to reflect that the quote concerning the Liberal party's work on an eldercare plan was a statement from leader Steven Del Duca, not from his spokesperson.