TORONTO – Ted Freeman-Atwood, 90, rolled out of his large brick-built nursing home in his wheelchair, wearing a blue tweed jacket with a white handkerchief sticking out of his breast pocket. “This is the longest distance I’ve driven 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. The skies are clear, the sun is generous and the streets of Toronto are alive. After eight months of near-permanent government-enforced closings, small storefronts opened their doors to customers and diners streamed from the sidewalk terraces onto the street.
It was Mr. Freeman-Atwood’s first real outing since August 2020; his second since the coronavirus pandemic began.
He ordered a glass of Pinot Grigio and explained that he hadn’t tasted this treat for almost a year because “the place I live in doesn’t want drunk old men bawling at girls after 5pm”.
Toronto – the city dubbed “the restricted capital of North America” by the National Association of Small Businesses – was filled with freedoms and freedoms that many had considered a chore by February 2020.
Since December, gatherings in the city – even outdoors – have been banned, leaving the city with a feeling of loneliness. Nobody felt this more than residents of Toronto’s nursing homes. Ground Zero for the gruesome devastation of the pandemic, responsible for 59 percent of the country’s Covid-19 deaths. As a result, they also became the most fortified. Locked since last March, most facilities denied all visitors for months.
For non-medical reasons, residents of nursing homes in Toronto were not allowed to leave their buildings, not even for a walk, for five weeks between March 2020 and June 2021. Many compared themselves to caged animals or prisoners. The lucky ones lived in residences with attached courtyards, where they could at least feel the sun on their faces.
Mr. Freeman-Atwood wasn’t one of the lucky ones.
“I’m bored to tears” he said in January, two weeks after receiving his first dose of the Moderna vaccine. “I practically do nothing. Nothing terrible happened today, nothing half terrible, nothing brilliantly happened, nothing half brilliant happened. “
He added, “I’m in my room all day.”
The child of a British Army general and a mother from Newfoundland, Mr. Freeman-Atwood had led a long, roaming 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 southern hemisphere’s largest hydroelectric power plant, until he negotiated its sale to the Brazilian government .
In 2012, Mr. Freeman-Atwood moved to Nisbet Lodge, a Christian, non-profit, long-term care home in the bustling Greektown neighborhood of Toronto. He had suffered five aneurysms in 10 years and one leg was removed due to poor circulation. After gangrene eventually developed in the remaining leg, the doctors amputated it too.
His second wife had died of cancer and he had stubbornly refused an offer from his only child, Samantha, to take him in.
“I’m too much of a bloody nuisance,” he explained. “I’m in a wheelchair. I can’t go up or down. Why should I do this to her? “
Prior to the pandemic, Mr. Freeman-Atwood met regularly with Samantha, his son-in-law, and two grandchildren for lunch at nearby restaurants; he visited the bank and the local cheese shop; and once a week he drove to the liquor store to get some wine, which he smuggled into his room.
Then, in March 2020, he lost the rest of his relatively independent lifestyle. He survived an outbreak in the home in which 35 employees and 53 residents tested positive. Four residents died. Mr. Freeman-Atwood tested positive but had no symptoms.
He could no longer see his daughter, who found the drives to the building to drop off cookies and supplies for him heartbreaking.
With regular phone calls in winter and spring, Mr. Freeman-Atwood’s only complaint was boredom. Sometimes the sound of his neighbor groaning in pain echoed insistently in the background.
“I know things could get a lot worse,” he said. “I would like to go out. What if I pick it up and then come back? “
During the pandemic, Canadian geriatricians raised the alarm about “inclusion syndrome”. Nursing home residents lost weight, cognitive and physical skills due to social isolation – worrying as most residents die within two years of arriving in a nursing home, even in times without a pandemic.
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 every morning before getting up.
A big day for him was a rare trip to the dining room of the building on the top floor, where he could speak to a young waitress in German, a language he had perfected in Austria in 1956 when he was working around for the accounting of an aid group take care of Hungarian refugees.
In Vienna he met his first wife, who also worked with refugees. “We were young enough to think we were fine,” he said.
As the pandemic dragged on, Mr Freeman-Atwood also revealed some vulnerable moments.
At the end of March, he chaired a residents’ meeting on the second floor, which he has led since moving in. Outside the city was in bloom, the forsythia bushes glowing promisingly yellow. In an instant the sun shone through the window.
“It pulled us out and said, ‘Come out, come out, come out and play,'” said Mr. Freeman-Atwood. “‘You had your two moderna jabs, why can’t you come out?’ The answer is: “No, the rest of the world doesn’t. And when that will be, nobody knows.”
Canada’s nursing homes were the first to receive the country’s vaccines, and by February each resident of these Ontario homes was offered a first dose. Even so, the restrictions haven’t changed.
Government officials were “so burned by poor performance that the last thing they wanted should be the minister to allow more bad things to happen,” said Dr. Samir Sinha, the director of geriatrics at Sinai Health System and the University Health Network in Toronto. He was one of those who urged the government to ease restrictions last spring.
“At this point,” he said, “the risks of loneliness and social isolation are far greater than dying of Covid in these houses.”
Though the Delta variant has hit Ontario in the past few months, it hasn’t caused the damage – or shutdowns – of other parts of the world, in part because of the high vaccination rate. 82 percent of the province’s eligible population had received at least one dose of vaccine by August 11th.
When Mr. Freeman-Atwood finally showed up in June, he wasn’t supposed to be going on a long journey. His dream trip was much easier. He rolled into a dollar store a block from his building to rummage through the cheap clocks since his were 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.
“This is my first time outside in a year,” he exclaimed.
The restaurant terrace bubbled with noises like an orchestra awakening. Loud conversations ran through the music from the speakers. A toddler at a table next door screamed; Her parents said it was her first time on a terrace.
Meals were enjoyed, the checks slowly arriving. Mr. Freeman-Atwood ordered two more glasses of wine.
“It’s more fun than I had in a year,” he said.
On the way back to his building, he pushed past storefronts that had not survived the pandemic; “For Sale” signs in their dusty windows. The sky turned 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 outing.
Vjosa Isai contributed to the research.