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Covid-19 in France’s nursing homes: ‘Saying goodbye makes all the difference’

A nursing home resident in Brest, France, on March 4, 2020. The elderly will remain under lockdown beyond May 11, when the rest of the country is expected to begin gradually opening up.
A nursing home resident in Brest, France, on March 4, 2020. The elderly will remain under lockdown beyond May 11, when the rest of the country is expected to begin gradually opening up. © Loic Venance, AFP (file photo)

The elderly in France’s nursing homes, as in many other countries, are strictly isolated to protect them from Covid-19, and will remain in lockdown well past May 11, when the rest of the country is expected to begin gradually opening up. This is very painful for the families, particularly of those who are at the end of life.

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“To all those, especially the caregivers, who defy government directives in order to let families say goodbye to their loved ones, when possible; to all those who show common sense and say that if a visitor is properly equipped, the risk for everyone is reduced, and enable family members to respect a basic human right, not allowing their loved ones to die abandoned and alone; to all those who display humanity: Thank you.”

This message was posted by Virginie Verlyndes on Facebook on April 9, 2020, a day of sadness and anger, but also of gratitude to those who made it possible for her grandmother to not die alone despite strict lockdown measures due to the coronavirus. Simone Verlyndes died that day at age 99.

“We wanted to have a nice party for her 100th birthday,” her grand-daughter, a 38-year-old biologist, told FRANCE 24. But her grandmother didn't make it.

A resident of a nursing home in Paris’s 14th arrondissement for seven years, Verlyndes died in a hospital emergency room several hours after she was taken there. She tested positive for Covid-19 but was also found to be suffering from a bowel obstruction, discovered too late.

“My grandmother had felt unwell for several days. My mother realised this over the phone, she could hear it in her voice. But we weren’t allowed to visit her,” Virginie Verlyndes said.

To limit the risk of contamination as much as possible, France announced strict isolation measures in nursing homes: Visits by relatives were first limited and then banned in mid-March.

Then, at the end of March, faced with the virus’s rapid spread, Health Minister Olivier Véran toughened the rules by recommending the individual isolation of each resident in their bedrooms.

>> Alone and vulnerable: Fears rise that elderly may 'backslide' during lockdown

‘Losing our humanity’

The measures aim to limit contact – and the risk of contagion – for this particularly vulnerable population. Since the start of the epidemic in France, more than 6,500 people have died of the coronavirus in health and social care facilities, including nursing homes.

But isolating the elderly, especially in their final moments, is difficult to bear for them and for their relatives, especially in the event of death. “On the phone, my grandmother kept saying, ‘I'm all alone, I don't see anyone, I'm going to die all alone,’” said Verlyndes. “For my mother, it was excruciating.”

Psychiatrists and gerontologists have been sounding the alarm. It is impossible to begin mourning your loss if you were not able to be at your loved one’s side at their time of death, explained the psychiatrist Serge Hefez on France Inter radio. Hefez himself lost his mother while she was in lockdown in a nursing home.

“All the dignity our loved ones have at the end of their lives is when we are with them, hold their hand, reassure them, stay close to them during this passage from life to death, but many are being deprived of this. We are losing our humanity and entering a kind of barbarity with an over-protective hygiene, even though death is part of the rhythm of life,” Hefez said.

The call appears to have been heard by French President Emmanuel Macron.

“I want hospitals and retirement homes to be able to make it possible for close family members, equipped with the necessary protection gear, to visit patients at the end of life, so that they can say goodbye,” he said in his televised speech about the health crisis on April 13.

‘No right age to die if not with dignity’

“Saying goodbye to your elderly relative makes all the difference,” Verlyndes said. Thanks to a compassionate doctor who, Verlyndes said, “agreed to deviate from the rules, out of humanity,” her grandmother was able to receive a visit by her daughter in her last moments.

“My mother (Laurence) forced them to let her visit. A doctor heard her distress and allowed her to come despite the ban.”

The staff gave Laurence a mask, gown and gloves, and let her spend half an hour at the bedside of her dying mother. “My mother was able to take her mother’s hand even though the doctor didn’t want her to. She could ask her to open her eyes, speak to her one last time, take a photo for all of us and, most importantly, say goodbye.”

Two hours after her daughter left, Simone Verlyndes died. “The fact that she was able to see her mother, speak to her, touch her and tell her she was there – that changed everything. For her and for us, the grandchildren,” Virginie Verlyndes said.

“I am a biologist and I fully understand the concept of natural selection. My grandmother was 99 years old; it’s a good age to die. But there’s no right age to die if it's not with dignity.”

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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