A sad but necessary reality of flu

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I was speaking to my mother the other night about how she's adjusting to the eldercare home in which she's now a resident.

"Well," she said, "I made a break yesterday and got out of my room for a few minutes."

She made a break?

Suddenly, visions of Happy Gilmore's grandmother and Ben Stiller shot through my mind as I recalled the implications of elder abuse that were used as comic fodder in that movie. The hair went up on the back of my neck.

"What do you mean you made a break?" I asked her.

"There's a flu bug that's struck the place and everyone is supposed to stay in their room all of the time. The staff bring your meals to your room and come in with masks and gloves on and if they catch you outside your room, they shoo you back in. I haven't seen hide nor hair of anyone else who's in here for four days."

It would be easy for me, sitting thousands of kilometres away, to judge that barring the elderly to their rooms for such long periods of time might be excessive, but there is a reality to the situation that, with a little thought, helps it all make sense.

First, the elderly are extremely susceptible to respiratory infections and most versions of the flu are exactly that.

Allowing a virus or two to spread through an elderly facility is risky and so if there is going to be any erring in judgment, it is going to be on the side of caution.

I understand that, and frankly, so does my mother. She is fearful of catching the flu.

Second, the staff of the facility do not stay there. They are mixing in the general community, have children who attend schools, and if the flu is in the community, then it is highly likely to find its way into the home.

The doors can be closed to visitors, but they can't be closed to staff, and so the masks, the gloves, and the reduction of interaction between the residents and the outside staff is simply a way of cutting down the odds of spreading something nasty.

Third, if the flu is in the community, then the hospital beds are filled to the brim.

Getting sick and needing care at a time that care is limited is never a good recipe for timely intervention.

And that's not even considering that the worst viruses, and subsequent infections, actually reside in the hospital.

If an elderly person can avoid ending up there, it's probably a lot healthier for them.

So I talked to my mom a bit longer to give her some company and my wife did the same. She has books to read and a television to keep her company and she's able to understand and accept the reasons for her "isolation," even if she does like to break out every now and then and head to the other hallway of the building to see what the weather looks like on the windward side.

I am certain there are others, perhaps less capable of mentally processing the information, for whom this isolation and lack of contact with staff is unsettling.

For them, literally, the staff is patrolling the hallways to keep them from making choices that might put their health, or the health of others, at risk.

It's a sad but necessary reality during the flu season.

Graham Hookey writes on education, parenting and eldercare.Email him at

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