Dec. 21, 2020

Government of Canada funds two UCalgary researchers working to strengthen COVID-19 response in long-term care

Bonnie Lashewicz and Zahra Goodarzi will evaluate promising interventions for residents and workers in long-term care facilities

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a tragic impact on the health and well-being of Canadians living and working in long-term care and retirement homes.

On Dec. 4, Patty Hajdu, minister of health, and Deb Schulte, minister of seniors, announced more than $1.8 million in funding for 14 cross-Canada research projects which will strengthen pandemic preparedness in these facilities.

  • Photo above: Bonnie Lashewicz, left, and Zahra Goodarzi have received federal funding for their work to strengthen pandemic preparedness in long-term care facilities.

Projects from two UCalgary research teams were among the recipients.

A team led by Dr. Zahra Goodarzi, MD, and Dr. Jayna Holroyd-Leduc, MD, both members of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health and the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), are working to improve palliative care for vulnerable older adults. 

Researchers led by Dr. Bonnie Lashewicz, PhD, a member of the O’Brien Institute, together with Dr. Lorraine Venturato, PhD, HBI, are working to identify solutions to protect the mental health of long-term care workers during this crisis.

“This investment will enable us to improve quality of care for older adults at a time when the challenges faced in long-term care and retirement homes have reached a critical mass,” says Dr. William Ghali, vice-president (research).

Our researchers are contributing to the safety and well-being of those in long-term care, and we are grateful to the federal government for their commitment to this important work.

This funding opportunity is the result of a collaboration between the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, the Canadian Foundation for Healthcare Improvement, the Canadian Patient Safety Institute and several provincial foundations.

The Canadian research teams will partner with long-term care and retirement homes to study the effectiveness of promising practises, interventions, and policy options designed to keep the residents, their families and caregivers, and staff at these homes safe from COVID-19.

With the funding, research teams will be able to support the implementation of these interventions and evaluate their outcomes and impacts to understand their effectiveness in long-term care and retirement homes across Canada.

Supporting long-term care workers during a pandemic

A study led by Dr. Bonnie Lashewicz, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the CSM, aims to understand and support the unique mental health needs long-term care workers are facing due to the COVID-19 crisis.

“Workers in these facilities — including hairdressers, janitors, food service workers — are doing their jobs with the knowledge that frail people are isolated in their rooms unable to even come out for a meal,” she says.

“They are having to police end-of-life visits where family members are only able to touch their loved one through gloved hands — the toll this takes on mental health and well-being cannot be overstated.”

Lashewicz is working with five homes in Calgary, Edmonton and Okotoks to create and disseminate a mental health support toolkit tailored to long-term care workers in pandemic conditions.

“Everyone I’ve ever met that works in these facilities is dedicated to high-quality care and these extenuating times are an opportunity to deepen understandings of this critically important care work and provide greater support and new tools,” she says.

Improving palliative care for frail older adults in long-term care

Dr. Zahra Goodarzi, MD, is working with a diverse team of researchers, health-care providers and other stakeholders to develop a protocol for older adults in long-term care living in a state of frailty (an underdiagnosed aging-related syndrome of physiological decline), which will help staff recognize the syndrome and initiate early palliative care when necessary.

This work is in collaboration with long-term care facilities operated by the Brenda Strafford Foundation and AgeCare, and is supported by the Brenda Strafford Centre on Aging. It builds on earlier research funded by the UCalgary Brenda Strafford Foundation Chair in Geriatric Medicine and the Canadian Frailty Network.

“There is a dire need to improve palliative care for frail older adults in long-term care across Canada, since almost 40 per cent of Canadians die in long-term care,” says Goodarzi.

The aim is for residents experiencing frailty to receive high-quality, end-of-life care within their long-term care facility, which is their home, and avoid unnecessary transfer to hospital.

The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn attention to the many barriers to providing palliative care to frail residents of long-term care, Goodarzi says.

Frailty is under-diagnosed in long-term care due to the often-unpredictable ways in which it presents and progresses. Limited palliative care knowledge and skills among staff, excessive workloads, and barriers within the continuing care environment are also a challenge.

“The pandemic has pushed to the ongoing issues in senior care into the public eye,” says Goodarzi. “This is an important opportunity for meaningful change.”

Lorraine Venturato is an associate professor, Faculty of Nursing, University of Calgary.

Led by the Hotchkiss Brain InstituteBrain and Mental Health is one of six research strategies guiding the University of Calgary toward its Eyes High goals. The strategy provides a unifying direction for brain and mental health research at the university.