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Lockdown leads one retirement home resident to assisted suicide


Ramann | Shutterstock

John Burger - published on 11/26/20

Nancy Russell preferred death rather than indefinite isolation due to COVID.

Rather than endure the isolation and loneliness of a second pandemic lockdown, a 90-year-old Toronto retirement home resident decided to take advantage of Canada’s physician-assisted suicide law. 

A report at CTV News said that the precautions being taken to protect elderly residents from COVID-19 infection are often having an unwelcome secondary effect. “Residents eat meals in their rooms, have activities and social gatherings cancelled, family visits curtailed or eliminated,” the report said. “Sometimes they are in isolation in their small rooms for days.”

Not even phone and Zoom calls with her family were enough to ward off Nancy Russell’s feelings of isolation this past spring and summer. Her family said she declined so sharply during lockdown that she didn’t want to go through more isolation this winter. Instead, she applied for what is termed in Canada as Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID).

“She was just drooping,” said a daughter, Tory. “It was contact with people that was like food to her, it was like, oxygen. She would be just tired all the time because she was under-stimulated.”

Russell’s family said she had been a supporter of Canada’s legalization of assisted suicide long before the pandemic.

Canadian law does not require one to have a fatal or terminal condition to apply for MAID. The condition must be serious, and one must be in an advanced stage of irreversible decline, be experiencing mental or physical suffering that cannot be relieved and be at the point where “your natural death has become reasonably foreseeable,” according to Health Canada.

At first, a doctor denied Russell’s application, but over time, “more concrete medical health” issues developed, her daughter said, and she succeeded in securing a doctor to carry out her wish. She died October 20.

CTV News reported that some professionals involved in assisted suicide report more seniors inquiring about the practice now.

“I would say it is an accelerator, not a cause for people’s MAID requests,” Dr. Susan Woolhouse, a member of the  Canadian Association of MAiD Assessors and Providers, told CTV News. “They met the criteria and wanted MAID prior to lockdown but are choosing to die sooner than they would otherwise because the LTC and retirement lockdowns, particularly visitor restrictions, are so miserable.”

The isolation being felt due to lockdown is not confined to Canada, of course, but other countries are dealing with it differently. As CTV News said: 

Other jurisdictions, like the Netherlands, quickly recognized the decline in senior residents of long-term care homes, and found balance between precautions and allowing activities and family visits. After a pilot project allowing one visitor per resident at 26 nursing homes did not result in a single new case of COVID-19, the Netherlands officially allowed all nursing homes to adopt those guidelines across the country.

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