TORONTO – Ted Freeman-Atwood, 90, rolled out of his tall brick nursing home in his wheelchair, wearing a blue tweed jacket with a white handkerchief sticking out of his breast pocket. “This is the furthest I’ve traveled since last year,” he told the manager of his favorite restaurant two blocks away, who greeted him by name.
It was a beautiful day in June. The skies clear, the sun generous and the streets of Toronto alive. After eight months of near-constant government-imposed closures, small storefronts flung open their doors to customers and diners poured from sidewalk patios onto the road.
It was Mr Freeman-Atwood’s first real outing since August 2020; his second since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
He ordered a glass of pinot grigio and explained that he hadn’t tasted that pleasure in almost a year because “the place I live in doesn’t want drunken old men to paddle girls after 5:00 pm”
Toronto — the city labeled “North America’s locked up capital” by the National Federation of Small Businesses — was giddy with the freedom and liberties that many had considered chores in February 2020.
Since December, gatherings in the city – even outside – have been banned, giving the city a feeling of loneliness. No one felt this more acutely than the residents of Toronto nursing homes. Ground zero for the brutal ravages of the pandemic, they are responsible for 59 percent of the country’s Covid-19 deaths. As a result, they also became the most fortified. Locked down since March last year, most facilities have been refusing all visitors for months.
Between March 2020 and June 2021, all but five residents of nursing homes in Toronto were not allowed to leave their buildings for non-medical reasons, not even to go for a walk. Many compared themselves to caged animals or prisoners. The lucky ones lived in houses with adjoining courtyards, where they could at least feel the sun on their faces.
Mr. Freeman-Atwood was not one of the lucky ones.
“I am bored to tears”, he said in January, two weeks after receiving his first dose of the Moderna vaccine. “I do almost nothing. Today nothing terrible has happened, half terrible has happened, nothing brilliant has happened, nothing half brilliant has happened.”
He added, “I’m in my room all day.”
The child of a British army general and a Newfoundland mother, Mr. Freeman-Atwood, had lived a large, itinerant life. He traveled the world as a child and spent most of his adulthood in Rio de Janeiro, where he eventually became president of Brascan, a major Canadian company that owned the largest hydroelectric power plant in the Southern Hemisphere, until he negotiated the sale to the Brazilian government.
In 2012, Mr. Freeman-Atwood moved into the Nisbet Lodge, a nonprofit Christian long-term care home in Toronto’s busy Greektown neighborhood. He had suffered five aneurysms in ten years and one leg had been removed due to poor circulation. After gangrene eventually entered the remaining leg, the doctors amputated that as well.
His second wife had died of cancer and he had stubbornly rejected an offer from his only child, Samantha, to take him in.
“I’m too much of a nuisance,” he explained. “I am in a wheelchair. I can’t go up or down. Why would I do that to her?”
Before the pandemic, Mr. Freeman-Atwood met Samantha, his son-in-law and two grandsons regularly for lunch at nearby restaurants; he visited the bank and the local cheese shop; and once a week he drove to the liquor store to get some wine, which he would smuggle back to his room.
Then, in March 2020, he lost what was left of his relatively independent lifestyle. He survived an outbreak at home in which 35 employees and 53 residents tested positive. Four residents died. Mr Freeman-Atwood tested positive but experienced no symptoms.
He could no longer see his daughter, who found the trips to the building to drop off cookies and supplies for him heartbreaking.
During the winter and spring during regular phone calls, Mr. Freeman-Atwood’s only complaint was boredom. Sometimes the sound of his neighbor moaning in pain echoed terrifyingly in the background.
“I know it could be a lot worse,” he said. “I would like to go out. What if I picked it up and then came back?”
During the pandemic, Canadian geriatricians sounded the alarm about ‘incarceration syndrome’. Nursing home residents lost weight, as well as cognitive and physical abilities due to social isolation – worrisome, given that even in non-pandemic times, most residents die within two years of arriving at a care home.
Mr. Freeman-Atwood tried to keep busy. He had three newspapers delivered on Saturday, filed tax returns for four people in the spring, and did 300 reps of exercises every morning before getting out of bed.
A big day for him was a rare trip to the top-floor dining room of the building, where he was able to converse with a young waitress in German, a language he had perfected in Austria in 1956, when he worked for the accounting department of an aid organization receiving Hungarian refugees.
He met his first wife, who also worked with refugees, in Vienna. “We were young enough to think we were doing well,” he said.
As the pandemic continued, Mr. Freeman-Atwood also revealed some vulnerable moments.
At the end of March, he chaired a residents’ council meeting on the second floor, which he has been leading since moving in. Outside, the city bloomed early, the forsythia bushes glowing electric yellow with promise. In an instant the sun shone through the windows.
“It pulled us out and yelled, ‘Come out, come out, come out and play,'” Mr Freeman-Atwood said. “You’ve had your two Moderna shots, why aren’t you coming out?” The answer is, ‘No, the rest of the world isn’t. And when will that be, nobody knows.”
Canada’s nursing homes were the first places to receive the country’s vaccines, and by February every resident of these homes in Ontario had received their first dose. Yet the restrictions have not changed.
Government officials were “so burned by poor performance, the last thing they wanted is to be that minister who makes more bad things happen,” said Dr. Samir Sinha, the director of geriatrics at Sinai Health System and University Health Network in Toronto. He was among those who lobbied the government last spring to ease restrictions.
“Right now,” he said, “the risks of loneliness and social isolation are much greater than dying of Covid in these homes.”
While the Delta variant has made it to Ontario in recent months, it hasn’t caused the damage — or closures — as seen in other parts of the world, in part due to the high rate of vaccinations. Eighty-two percent of the county’s eligible population received at least one vaccine dose on Aug. 11.
When Mr. Freeman-Atwood finally emerged in June, he wasn’t supposed to go on a big trip. His dream getaway was much simpler. He rolled into a dollar store within a block of his building to check out the cheap watches, as his was broken. “Do you remember me?” he asked the man behind the counter. He was like a shipwreck survivor, giddy with the joys of basic social interaction.
“This is the first time I’ve been outside in a year,” he exclaimed.
The restaurant patio was bubbling with sounds, like an awakening orchestra. The music from the speakers punctuated with boisterous conversations. A toddler at an adjacent table screamed; her parents explained that this was her first time on a patio.
Meals were enjoyed, checks arrived slow. Mr. Freeman-Atwood ordered two more glasses of wine.
“This is more fun than I’ve had in a year,” he said.
On his way back to his building, he pushed past storefronts that had not survived the pandemic; Signs saying ‘for sale’ in front of their dusty windows. The sky turned blue-purple; storm clouds gathered.
Mr Freeman-Atwood said he didn’t know how long these freedoms would last, or whether we would pay for them. But he had already planned another outing.
Vjosa Isai research contributed.