By Ammar Saad.
During some of the darkest months of the past two years, most Canadians heard the grim news coming from long-term care (LTC) homes, and many witnessed first-hand the heartbreaking and devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the lives and wellbeing of LTC home residents and their families.
As students, we wanted to help, but many of us didn’t know how. LTC homes were “locked-down” and we were “locked-out”. We also lacked the training and experience needed to provide long-term care, so we decided to learn through experiment, gain experience through research, and start by shedding light on the health inequities of LTC home residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We formed a research team of medical, nursing, science, epidemiology, and public health students. We designed a research study to explore how the initial lockdown impacted LTC home residents’ lives, and if the visitation strategies that followed were of any help. With the supervision of a frontline physician who had expertise in long-term care, and support from the Ontario Centre for Learning, Research, and Innovation in Long-Term Care at Bruyère, we were ready to undertake an adventure of a lifetime, one that would ultimately shape our perspectives and careers.
Our project entailed surveying and virtually interviewing LTC home residents, their family members, and designated caregivers. We believed that one-on-one interviews would allow residents and family members to speak their minds and tell us about their experiences and stories candidly and safely. For some of us, this was not our first research study collaboration, but for all of us, it was the first time that we had the opportunity to hear real-life stories and experiences in LTC homes during the pandemic. Residents and their families had a lot to say, their words were emotionally charged, their stories laden with anger, despair, guilt, and confusion. We felt what they felt, ached as they ached, and at certain points, could not believe what we had heard.
This was a challenging time for everyone, including us, students, who were navigating a changing education system, coping with COVID-19 stress, and trying to see this research study through. While many argued that we did not have the capacity to take on an emotionally charged study such as ours, we found solace in what this adventure brought to us and what it would bring to the scientific community for years to come. Through this study, we found a purpose and cause to fight for, a channel to streamline our efforts, and an opportunity to expand on what health equity means in long-term care and COVID-19. We were and still are, confident that the stories we heard and experiences of residents and family members that we documented, coupled with our robust approach to research will shed light on an understudied issue; the health inequities experienced by LTC home residents. Our findings can serve as the first step towards making sure that LTC home residents never have to experience the same inequities they have ever again.
“So where do we go from here?” we asked ourselves as we submitted the research paper for publication earlier this year. We are now equipped with the experimental knowledge we need to shape our careers and support equitable and evidence-based care to LTC home residents, but how about other students who were not able to share this opportunity with us? Our work cannot be exclusive to our team or it will defy its purpose and objective. All and every student with the desire to learn more about the health inequities brought by the COVID-19 pandemic to LTC home residents should have the opportunity to do so. Our next step going forward will be to lead the way for other students to learn as we learned and shape their careers as we did. We now have the duty to lead the change. Through advocating for the integration of long-term care education into our undergraduate and graduate curricula, and through working with our respective university programs to create new initiatives, such as community service-learning programs, we can provide students the opportunity to care for and improve the health equity of LTC home residents. We are now ready to lead the change in long-term care. The real question remains: who is willing to help us lead this change?
Ammar Saad is a medical student who pursued a master’s degree in Epidemiology from the University of Ottawa. He is the lead author on the aforementioned research paper, Health Equity Implications of the COVID-19 Lockdown and Visitation Strategies in Long-Term Care Homes in Ontario: A Mixed Method Study