A Return to Freedom, After Nearly a Year Trapped Indoors Under Lockdown
TORONTO – Ted Freeman-Atwood, 90, emerged from his large brick nursing home in his wheelchair, wearing a blue tweed jacket with a white handkerchief sticking out of his chest pocket. “It’s 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. Clear skies, bountiful sunshine and vibrant Toronto streets. After eight months of near-constant government-enforced closures, small storefronts opened to shoppers and restaurant patrons spilled 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, explaining that he hadn’t tasted the pleasure for almost a year because “the joint I live in doesn’t want drunk old men banging girls after 5 pm”
Toronto – the city labeled “the lockdown capital of North America” by the National Small Business Federation – was stunned by the freedom and freedoms that many saw as chores in February 2020.
Since December, gatherings in the city – even outside – were banned, filling the city with a sense of loneliness. No one felt this more acutely than the residents of Toronto nursing homes. Zero point of the cruel devastation of the pandemic, they represent 59% of deaths due to Covid-19 in the country. As a result, they also became the most fortified. Locked down since last March, most establishments have refused all visitors for months.
For all but five weeks between March 2020 and June 2021, residents of Toronto nursing homes were not allowed to leave their buildings for non-medical reasons, not even a walk. Many have compared themselves to caged animals or prisoners. The lucky ones lived in residences with adjoining yards, where they could at least feel the sun on their faces.
Mr. Freeman-Atwood was not one of the lucky ones.
“I’m bored to tears” he said in January, two weeks after receiving his first dose of Moderna vaccine. “I hardly do anything. Today nothing horrible happened, noting that nothing semi-horrible, nothing brilliant happened, nothing semi-brilliant 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 led a large and itinerant life. As a child, he traveled the world and spent most of his adulthood in Rio de Janeiro, where he eventually became president of Brascan, a large Canadian company that owned the largest hydroelectric company in the southern hemisphere, until he negotiated his sale to the Brazilian. government.
In 2012, Mr. Freeman-Atwood moved to Nisbet Lodge, a non-profit Christian long-term care home located in Toronto’s vibrant Greektown neighborhood. He had suffered five aneurysms in 10 years and had a leg removed due to poor circulation. After the gangrene finally settled in the remaining leg, the doctors also amputated it.
His second wife had died of cancer and he stubbornly refused the offer of his only child, Samantha, to take him into care.
“I’m too fucking a nuisance,” he explained. “I am in a wheelchair. I can neither go up nor down. Why should I do this to him?
Before the pandemic, Mr. Freeman-Atwood regularly met Samantha, her son-in-law and her two grandsons for lunch at nearby restaurants; he visited the bank and the local cheese factory; and once a week he would go to the liquor store to buy 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 a home outbreak, in which 35 staff and 53 residents tested positive. Four residents died. Mr. Freeman-Atwood tested positive, but did not show any symptoms.
He could no longer see his daughter, who found it heartbreaking to travel to the building to drop off cookies and supplies.
On regular phone calls throughout the winter and spring, Mr. Freeman-Atwood’s only complaint was boredom. Sometimes the sound of his neighbor moaning in pain echoed hauntingly in the background.
“I know it could be a lot worse,” he said. “I would love to go out. What if I pick it up and then come back? “
During the pandemic, Canadian geriatricians sounded the alarm about the “containment syndrome”. Residents of nursing homes were losing weight, as well as cognitive and physical abilities due to social isolation – which is of concern given that even in non-pandemic times, most residents die within two years of arriving. in a nursing home.
Mr. Freeman-Atwood tried to keep busy. He had three newspapers delivered on Saturdays, compiled tax returns for four people in the spring, and did 300 repetitions of exercises each morning before getting up.
A big day for him was a rare trip to the dining room of the top-floor building, where he could speak to a young waitress in German, a language he had perfected in 1956 in Austria, while he was working. to do the accounts of a help group. dealing with 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 dragged on, Freeman-Atwood also revealed vulnerable moments.
At the end of March, he chaired a Residents’ Council meeting on the second floor, which he had chaired since moving in. Outside, the city was in full bloom, the forsythia bushes glowing a promising electric yellow. In an instant, the sun came through the windows.
“It got us going out, calling, ‘Get out, get out, get out and play,” Mr. Freeman-Atwood said. “‘You had your two Moderna jabs, why can’t you go out? The answer is, ‘No, the rest of the world didn’t. And when will it happen, no one knows.
Canada’s nursing homes were the first places to receive vaccines in the country and by February, every resident of these homes in Ontario was offered a first dose. Yet the restrictions have not changed.
Government officials were “so burnt out by poor performance, the last thing they wanted was to be that minister who allows more bad things to happen,” said Dr Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Sinai Health System and the University Health Network in Toronto. He was among those who lobbied the government last spring to ease its restrictions.
“At this point,” he said, “the risks of loneliness and social isolation are far greater than dying from Covid in these homes. “
Although the Delta variant has reached Ontario in recent months, it hasn’t caused the damage – or shutdowns – as seen in other parts of the world, in part because of the high vaccination rate. . As of August 11, 82% of the province’s eligible population had received at least one dose of the vaccine.
When Mr. Freeman-Atwood finally emerged in June, it wasn’t for a big trip. His dream exit was much simpler. He walked into a dollar store a block from his building to check out the cheap watches, because his was broken. “Do you remember me?” he asked the man behind the counter. He was like a shipwreck survivor, stunned by the joys of basic social interaction.
“It’s the first time I’ve been outside in a year,” he exclaimed.
The restaurant terrace was seething with noises, like an awakening orchestra. Music from the speakers mingled with a loud conversation. A toddler at a nearby table screamed; her parents explained that it was her first time on a patio.
The meals were savored, the checks were slow to arrive. Mr. Freeman-Atwood ordered two more glasses of wine.
“It’s more fun than I’ve had in a year,” he said.
On the way back to his apartment building, he pushed past storefronts that had not survived the pandemic; “For Sale” signs displayed in their dusty windows. The sky was turning a murderous purple; storm clouds were gathering.
Mr. Freeman-Atwood said he did not know how long these freedoms would last, or whether we would pay for them. But he was already planning another exit.
Vjosa Isai contributed research.
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