L-R: Diana Dunsmore, Gerrie Melnechuk and Gretchen Backus hold pictures of their late husbands in a room at Nelson Jubilee Manor. The trio spoke out on behalf of the facility’s staff after a provincial report criticized standards of care. Photo: Tyler Harper

Living and dying with grace in residential care

A trio of widows speak out in support of Nelson Jubilee Manor staff

Glen Backus never liked to hear death described as passing away.

In his sermons, the former Lutheran pastor used to joke with his congregation that passing was the wrong verb. Only one word did the job.

“He said we don’t pass over, or pass out, or pass under. He said we die,” says Gretchen Backus, Glen’s wife of 59 years. “He was a wonderful preacher and he had a wonderful sense of humour.”

So when Glen himself died of Parkinson’s disease last March, Gretchen took solace in knowing his life ended at Nelson Jubilee Manor.

She’d wanted him to be able to die at their family home, but that wasn’t possible and in the end it didn’t matter. The residential care facility’s staff had made Jubilee Manor a home away from home for the couple.

“They made his dying as pleasant as death can be,” Gretchen says now.

Gretchen Backus, Diana Dunsmore and Gerrie Melnechuk each lost their husbands in 2017 while they were in care at Jubilee Manor.

The trio were motivated to speak out on behalf of Jubilee’s staff after a report released in November by the Office of the Seniors Advocate found residential care facilities including Jubilee Manor and Nelson’s Mountain Lake Seniors’ Community were failing to meet provincial standards.

The report did not single out poor work by health care providers — in fact staff responses were not included in a survey of residents and families that formed the basis for the report — but Backus, Dunsmore and Melnechuk take issue with how the report indirectly criticizes staff who they say work tirelessly for the people they are charged with caring for.

Related: Report: Nelson’s residential care facilities under-performing

Melnechuk’s husband Dale, to whom she’d been married 40 years, died last April after three years of living at Jubilee with Alzheimer’s disease. He’d been admitted shortly before Valentine’s Day in 2014, and Melnechuk remembers the difficult early transition relieved by a holiday lunch staff put together for every couple at Jubilee.

“It was lovely,” she says. “It was decorated. The food was presented beautifully, there were little touches of a Valentine’s celebration. That meant a lot to us who still had our spouse and still wanted to enjoy those kind of special moments.”

Dunsmore has been chair of the Jubilee Manor Foundation for over 20 years. When the Parkinson’s debilitating her husband Robert took a turn for the worse, Dunsmore already had an intimate knowledge of who would be taking care of him.

Dunsmore was training to be a nurse in Victoria when she met Robert, and cared for him even as their 63-year marriage came to an end.

That allowed her to see the struggles staff go through in their day-to-day duties.

“The amount of care that is needed to get people up in the morning and dressed and undressed and put them to bed at night and do all their treatment and change them when they are wet or dirty, all those things take a great deal of time for elderly or ill patients because they can’t move quickly.”

The provincial standard for directly funded hours of care per resident is 3.36 hours, although 80 per cent of facilities actually meet that mark. The Interior Health Authority, which runs Jubilee and is responsible for oversight at Mountain Lake, has its own standard of 3.15 hours based on funding.

But reducing quality of care to a number trivializes the actual work done at Jubilee, according to Backus.

“The staff was very caring of him as an individual. They respected him,” she says. “They just seemed to go above and beyond in actually caring for people. To me this is amazing. When they know they’re going to lose these people, and yet they treated him with respect and with love.”

Jubilee Manor was initially opened in 1979 as a personal care home. Melnechuk says little has been done to the facility to reflect the change in resident’s needs, which are often far greater than they were decades ago.

“When you consider that [staff] are working in an environment that was never built to manage the people who they attempt to manage, they do an incredible job.”

Another area of health care Dunsmore felt the report misrepresented was in the use of medication.

At residential care facilities across B.C., a diagnosis is rarely required for staff to dole out anti-depressant and anti-psychotic medications. For example, 47.8 per cent of residents provincially receive anti-depressants despite just 23.9 per cent having been diagnosed with depression.

Those numbers are slightly better at Jubilee — 45.4 per cent of residents take anti-depressants with only 17.4 having been diagnosed — but Dunsmore said the stats generalize patients’ needs.

“Some of what are quote-unquote anti-depressants are really a medication that handles a specific condition,” she says, adding that Robert was comforted once he began taking a medication at Jubilee. “It didn’t sedate him, but it just helped him with the confusion.”

It was the little things staff did, though, that allowed each of the men to live their final years with grace. Group recreation helped them get fresh air, food provided was far better than hospital fare, and when the end came families were given support and space.

“They just allowed us to live as a couple who were doing the best they could to spend quality time together,” said Melnechuk.


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