Health

The unbearable wait for families with relatives in Frances coronavirus-hit care homes

Coronavirus death rates are rising in Frances homes for the elderly and with it, the levels of stress among families who cannot visit their loved ones there. With two generations, her mother and grandmother, admitted to a care home, a French mother of two struggles to cope with anxiety, helplessness and the distance imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

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The phone has turned into an object of anxiety, assurance, anguish and frustration for Pascaline Coppeaux over the past few weeks. Her mother, Ginette, 77, has been living in a care home in the northern French town of Nogent-sur-Oise since August 2016. Coppeauxs 94-year-old grandmother, Geneviève, was admitted into the same nursing home in early March.

The Résidence Saint Vincent de Paul is in the Hauts-de-France department, one of the regions worst affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Its one of thousands of such institutions — known by the acronym “Ehpad” in France — that are run by both the public and private sectors. Frances director-general of health, Jérôme Salomon, has admitted that Ehpads and hospitals are “the two main locations of death” due to the coronavirus across the country.

For Coppeaux and her family, that admission has caused days of anxiety and stress, which theyre trying to deal with as best they can.

In the care home, Coppeauxs mother and grandmother were isolated and confined to their respective rooms in accordance with official health directives. French officials are compiling new data on coronavirus deaths in care homes since the existing figures only include the elderly who were tested for the virus. Earlier this month, Salomon admitted that at least 884 people had died in old aged homes nationwide in addition to the official death toll.

While Coppeaux understands the importance of the isolation, it also leaves her wondering how her mother and grandmother are coping. The 45-year-old mother of two, who lives in the western French city of Nantes, has been unable to visit her folks at Résidence Saint Vincent de Paul since President Emmanuel Macron urged French people not to visit their elderly relatives on March 7, weeks before the nation went into a strict lockdown.

Coppeauxs mother, Ginette, is no longer able to express herself and has been placed in a special unit for severe Alzheimer's patients, which has 12 residents. "It can't be easy to keep them from maintaining a distance," she says. “My mother used to wander around a lot at night," she explains before concluding, "But okay, since she's been ill, I guess theres no need to wonder about that.”

She doesnt fit the boxes

On Tuesday, March 24, Coppeauxs phone rang. It was the care home. “They warned me that my mother had had a fever for four days, with a 40°C flare-up the night before," she recounts. Ginette didnt have a cough, but there was a noticeable discomfort in her breathing. Although the elderly are the most affected by the Covid-19 outbreak, with a mortality rate that exceeds 14.8 percent among those above 80 years old, theres no way of knowing if Ginette has contracted the disease due to the shortage of tests in France.

Over the next few days, Coppeaux and her two brothers keep checking in with the care home. The fever has not fallen. "When do we do something?" she asks the medical staff. She's informed that, "If she has a temperature, that's good, since that means there's only an infection." Coppeaux doesn't understand, asks questions, turns stubborn. Her nerves are frayed and to calm herself, she says, she "concentrates on the information only".

On Friday, March 27, the care home staff informs her that Ginette has been administered a Covid-19 test and the result was positive. She has since been isolated with other coronavirus positive cases in a specialised unit in accordance with government directives. "The staff is equipped with gowns and glasses for protection — that's a beginning," she says.

The care home staff suggests to Coppeaux and her siblings that given Ginettes condition and age, she will not be hospitalised in case of an emergency. "They make me understand that she doesn't fit into any of the boxes," she recounts indignantly. Its a decision she finds hard to swallow especially since, as early as March 6, Macron assured the populace that "our top priority [was] to protect the most fragile” against the virus. The statistics, however, seem to tell another story: in the Hauts-de-France region alone, 181 care home residents have tested positive for coronavirus and 44 have died, according to the March 31 statistics released by the regional health authorities.

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