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GETTING FACE TIME

How virtual visits are helping patients and families connect in the COVID era

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Up until visitor restrictions were put in place on March 16, Beverly (Bev) George had been used to daily visits from any of her four daughters and several grandchildren living in the Fredericton area as well as frequent phone calls from her eldest son, Andy in Halifax.

Bev was admitted to Horizon's Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital (DECRH) on Christmas Eve, eventually becoming a patient on 4E, the Healthy Aging and Rehabilitation Unit where she awaits placement in a long-term care home.

Born and raised in Charlotte County, Beverly Henry moved to Fredericton after high school to attend the New Brunswick Teachers' College in 1955. She boarded on Aberdeen Street and in her free time visited a girlfriend from St. George who rented an apartment downtown, on the third floor of the G.E. George clothing store on Queen Street.

The middle floor is where Lebanese immigrant George E. George and his wife Isabel raised their seven children. It was also the place where her friend introduced Bev to Joey, one of the seven George children who helped his parents run the store on the main floor.

MARRIES FOOTBALL STAR

When Joey wasn't minding the store, the football wall-of-famer was on the field for both the University of New Brunswick (UNB) and St. Thomas University (STU) football teams.

As a fullback, Joey led STU to three New Brunswick football championships from 1952-1954. He led UNB to the Union Championship in 1955 and was selected to the all-star team in 1953 and 1955. It was near the end of his football career when Bev met Joey, and she attended many of his games in his final year. 

Before long, the two large families united as Bev and Joey were married, soon moving into a home on Fredericton's north side where they raised their five children. Their family grew and grew and now includes 14 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

Joey passed away in 2013 at the age of 82.

Family is important to Bev and regular visits in the early part of her stay at the hospital helped her to be more comfortable with her new surroundings and perked up her days.

LONELINESS AS HARMFUL AS SMOKING

Geriatricians and care givers agree that social isolation and loneliness can negatively affect both the mental and physical health of seniors.

"We know that loneliness increases the risk of all sorts of health problems in seniors, and the risk is even higher when health is already compromised, in those over 80 years of age, and in those who are cognitively impaired," said Dr. Patrick Feltmate, a geriatrician with the Healthy Aging program in Fredericton. "Loneliness has been shown to have a negative health risk comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes per day, so we should be prioritizing 'anti-loneliness' measures as highly as we prioritize anti-smoking measures."

Shortly after visitor restrictions were put in place because of the pandemic, recreation therapists looked for ways to minimize the impact of patients unable to have friends and family visit.

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IPADS FOR VIRTUAL VISITS

Janet Crealock, recreation therapist at the DECRH tapped her colleagues to come up with ideas on how to bridge the social networking gap that was suddenly closed.

Thanks to some existing hospital iPads and a generous donation of several more from the Chalmers Foundation, Janet went about setting up virtual visits between patients and visitors using the FaceTime or Messenger app on the device.

"I started initiating it here at the DECRH and we started calling families and asking them if they had the technology at home so that we can create visits between family members and loved ones when they can't see each other," said Janet. "People have been overwhelmingly happy with the results."

Janet has initiated contact with at least 60 families since the pandemic began. Tuesday through Thursday, patients on 4E can book their personal virtual video calls, while Mondays and Fridays are still reserved for personal one-on-one programming.

Bev is grateful for the staff who have set up the technology for her and the opportunity to see her family again, if only virtually.

"It's been wonderful to be able to see my family," she said. "It makes a big difference. No matter how old your child is they are still your child-It's like when you haven't seen yours for three weeks, it's a bit of a difference when you get to see them. You're more excited."

COMBATS SOCIAL ISOLATION

Dr. Feltmate notes that our system is designed around the concept of having visitors in hospital as they often play a helpful role in identifying subtle issues that may not be as apparent to someone who is less familiar with a patient. Family also play an important advocacy role for seniors who have cognitive impairment, which is more difficult to do remotely.

While the jury is out as to whether videoconferencing is comparable to being there, "seeing a loved one's face adds a lot to the experience," said Dr. Feltmate. "So, I think video is probably more effective at combatting social isolation than simply talking on the phone, especially for the many seniors who have hearing difficulties or cognitive impairment."

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Bev has enjoyed video calls with each of her children since the service became available. Her daughter, Mary-Jo Roy, was the most recent family member to use it.

"It's been enjoyable, and I liked that my mother had some privacy to make the call," Mary-Jo said, noting the best part is that they can see one another. "Because she tires more easily talking on the phone, this is more exciting for us."

As much as Bev and other patients would prefer the physical presence of a family visit, patients and families agree that this is a step in the right direction. And Janet Crealock is planning for this to be a permanent tool after COVID-19 fades.

"One thing that we discovered was that this was probably a service that we were lacking here because families from away now are seeing their loved ones once a week, where before, they weren't having that service," said Janet. "We're really happy to be able to bring families back together. We've had a lot of happy tears, especially from families from away."

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