The unbearable wait for families with relatives in France’s coronavirus-hit care homes

Coronavirus death rates are rising in France’s 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.

The coronavirus outbreak has confined the elderly in France's care homes to isolation with no family visits allowed.
The coronavirus outbreak has confined the elderly in France's care homes to isolation with no family visits allowed. STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN AFP/Archives

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. Coppeaux’s 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. It’s one of thousands of such institutions -- known by the acronym “Ehpad” in France -- that are run by both the public and private sectors. France’s 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 they’re trying to deal with as best they can.

In the care home, Coppeaux’s 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.

Coppeaux’s 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 there’s no need to wonder about that.”

‘She doesn’t fit the boxes’

On Tuesday, March 24, Coppeaux’s 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 didn’t 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, there’s 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 Ginette’s 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. It’s 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.

Mother is in hospital, grandmother is going stir crazy

On Saturday, March 28, Coppeaux is waiting for news. The Résidence Saint Vincent de Paul remains unreachable between noon and 8pm. On Sunday, a doctor finally calls her brother to inform the family that, following their request, Ginette will be transferred to a Covid-19 unit at a hospital in the northern French city of Creil. "They will be able to put her on oxygen," he assures her. 

At the hospital, the doctors are clear about her mother's state. "They are not optimistic," she explains. They can't give her [the anti-malarial drug] chloroquine because she has too much oxygen in her body and would risk having a heart attack. If she is intubated, the medical staff warn that rehabilitation will be difficult if she makes it. "In any case, it's unlikely my mother will be part of that process," Pascaline presumes.

On Sunday, March 29, Coppeaux is able to reach her 94-year-old grandmother, still in the nursing home and in good shape. They speak via a video chat. "She's fine, but she's getting crazy being locked up in her room, she just wants to get out," she explains. 

Her septuagenarian mother Ginette is still in hospital. For the three siblings, the phone calls, long waits and anxious moments look set to extend for hours, days, even weeks. It’s the fate of innumerable families across France, with an as-yet untold psychological toll not shown in the country’s daily disease statistics.

(This article has been translated from the original in French)

>> Read also: As coronavirus creeps into French care homes, a ‘tsunami’ of deaths go uncounted 


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