After 73 years of marriage, this couple is forced to live apart
Gwen and John will celebrate their wedding anniversary in the summer of 2021. This was the first of two anniversaries so far that they have lived apart. (Submitted by Cynthia Hooper)
An Ottawa couple were forced to live in separate care facilities for 19 months despite their children’s efforts to reunite them in what one expert calls a “human tragedy”.
Her daughter, Cynthia Hooper, said she was concerned about the impact the split would have on the cognitive health of her parents, John and Gwen Hooper. Her father, in particular, suffered from cognitive decline.
“Whenever he’s excited, he often, often calls my mother’s name,” Cynthia said.
“It is heartbreaking that after 73 years of marriage they are forced to live apart.”
The couple lived at Portobello Manor in Orléans until June 2021. By this time, John had left the residence – sometimes in the middle of the night – and had to be transferred to Perley Health for his care.
CLOCK | Waiting for the Hoopers to reunite:
‘It’s heartbreaking’: After 73 years of marriage, her parents are being forced to live apartCynthia Hooper said that when her father moved to Perley Health to care for him, she didn’t expect the spousal reunion process to take so long — May 19 months and counting.
Cynthia said the family tries to connect her parents with phone calls, but visits are scant.
The condition of her 92-year-old mother makes it difficult to travel by car and sometimes her father is asleep when they arrive.
Additionally, COVID-19 outbreaks and lockdowns have exacerbated segregation.
Cynthia said when John, now 95, suffered a near-fatal respiratory infection late last fall, she realized the urgency of getting her parents back together.
“It’s just going home [realizing] One or the other of my parents can die and not have [reunited] under one roof,” she says.
Cynthia said she and her brother reached out to local politicians and Ontario’s Long-Term Care Action Line, but got little hope.
“I think there should be some space … to reunite people who have been married for decades. There is an investigation [care] need, but there is also a mental need and I think that needs to be addressed,” she said.
John, left, with Gwen in the Perley Health courtyard in the summer of 2022. Her daughter says Gwen’s chronic pain issues make travel difficult. (Submitted by Cynthia Hooper) “Human Tragedy” to force couple to live apart
Ivy Bourgeault, a professor at the University of Ottawa, is co-leading a research project on improving late life for people living in long-term care and for their caregivers.
She said the reunion of spouses is important to that goal.
“It helps with familiarity. It can help ensure appropriate care and put people at ease,” Bourgeault said.
She said the system needs more flexibility when partners need different levels of care so they can at least be in the same facility or nearby.
Dying of a broken heart is not considered a community crisis. – dr Samir Sinha, Mount Sinai Hospital
dr Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital and University Health Network, said spousal reunification has continued to move down the priority list in the long-term care admissions system.
“To see them separated by a system that lowers the priority of these reunions over other types of crisis accommodation is truly a human tragedy,” Sinha said.
“We have to keep in mind that the average life expectancy in a nursing home in Ontario is about 18 months.”
He said recent changes have put crisis patients expelled from hospitals at the top of admission lists, followed by people living in the community whose health has become unstable. He said the lack of resources in hospitals and for supportive home care means there is a constant flow of crisis patients.
“While spousal reunification is a little more of a priority than people who generally just want to move … they’re being pushed further down the current waiting list by people in crisis,” he said.
“She doesn’t qualify under the current system because dying of a broken heart isn’t considered a community crisis.”
Sinha says it is a “human tragedy” to leave elderly couples separated. (Yanjun Li/CBC)
In a statement, a spokesman for the Minister for Long-Term Care said the top priority for reunification was for those in the crisis category. Those affected by the crisis can apply for the two additional beds in any nursing home.
The Ottawa Area Waiting List
Home and Community Care Support Services Champlain, who is responsible for long-term care in the Ottawa area, said there are currently 42 people on the waiting list for spousal reunification in the area.
Average wait times are not reported due to variables such as individual patient choice, patient need, and the availability of beds at a facility. The agency said 74 patients were placed in spousal or partner reunification between May 2021 and November 2022.
The agency said its teams continued to work with patients and their families to “find and offer creative solutions to bring spouses closer together.”
The Perley Health long-term care home has 450 long-term beds. According to the ministry, 1,232 people were on the waiting list in October 2022. (Jonathan Dupaul/Radio Canada)
Bourgeault said the current mechanics of the long-term care system and the pressure on workers exposed to the pandemic are making it difficult to meet families’ needs.
“There doesn’t seem to be room for that right now because the system isn’t lean anymore, and that’s really unfair,” she said.
“We are reeling from crisis to crisis to crisis. This is not a nursing system. It is not a system that allows care under respectful care conditions.”