'We are able to talk because this woman loves her'

Her name is Jeannette Poirier. She’s not a nurse. She’s a custodian.

It's not part of her job description but in the fallout from COVID-19, her love for Sue Ferris, a resident of the Pine Grove Nursing Home in New Brunswick where Poirier works, has been incredible, said Sue's husband, Charles Ferris.

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Sue, 71, has advanced early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Since she moved into the nursing home a couple of years ago, her husband has been visiting her most days for several hours. He has hired an additional team of caregivers, and his children also visit. But with COVID-19 closing visitor access to the facility to prevent the virus from entering, he, his family and the additional support team he has built for his wife can’t be with her.

Poirier is holding the couple together through this time by calling him from his wife's room, Charles said.

“She calls me from Sue’s room days when she’s working, and we are able to talk because this woman loves her," Charles said. "The residents she helps care for, she cares so much about every single one of them that she will do anything she can to make their lives better and to make the lives of their loved ones better.”

Poirier "has been doing this on her own time, during her breaks," said Cheryl Wiggins, the administrator of Pine Grove. "This was completely her own initiative and above her regular duty.

"I'm very proud of her, but it doesn't surprise me," Wiggins said, adding that some other workers have also taken on extraordinary duties to make up for tasks usually assisted by family or volunteers, including office staff helping with serving meals and feeding.

"They totally amaze me," she said of her team. "It's very personal for them. We are very much connected with the people we care for. And so when they're sad, we're sad."

The Times Transcript requested an interview with Jeannette Poirier, but she politely declined.

"She's the type of person that goes over and above without telling others or seeking recognition," said Wiggins.

Charles knows where his wife will be sitting when the calls come: the spot where they've shared many hours together. He can still see her, it’s just in his mind. “We've been together for nearly 50 years. I think we have a pretty good idea what we look like, so the voices are the big thing, the recognition of voices is huge.”

He said he finds himself trying to keep the calls light and trying to “affirm and reaffirm how much I care for her and just looking for that happiness, listening for those sounds of joy. And typically, what I end up with at the end of this little conversation is someone who is pretty happy that I've made a call and pretty happy that I'm part of her life. And it’s just about that basic. But that’s fundamental of what relationships are about. That’s love.”

The typically 15-minute calls are enough for him to hold on to as he busies himself as best he can until the next time he can speak with Sue. He said he is very involved in his church, attending to things in his house and has even returned to school, pursuing a PhD in history part-time.

But as much as he finds meaning in these “distractions,” the most meaning is found these days thanks to Poirier. Others at the home have been fantastic with his wife and also helped facilitate some communication, but he is crediting Poirier most for helping them through this separation. His voice breaks often, moved as he speaks about her and what she has helped facilitate.

“Jeannette's the one who actually keeps me connected with Sue almost every day. And if I didn't have that connection, it would be so, so hard. Because at the end of the day, what you're down to really is the love between two people ... that's about all we can take out of here with us, is that love. And so being able to share that with my wife almost every day is a huge big deal.”

But the separation also brings with it worries that Poirier can’t allay.

“The sacrifice of separation is pretty major. And particularly when you worry about who they will know when you get to go back in, what they will still know of you when you get to go back.” He also worries about Sue losing mobility with less volunteers, support staff and family members.

These are worries that Chandra MacBean, executive director of the Alzheimer Society of New Brunswick, has been hearing frequently from families right now.

“I think the time apart and the distance apart makes this a little bit more worrisome than normal," MacBean said. "We're encouraging people to really focus on the connection in the moment.”

She also hears worries from caregivers with a family member living with Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia living at home. Different community supports, family and friend visits that may have provided respite for the caregiver are gone.

“The added layer of either caring for or living with dementia means that people who are already self isolated are probably feeling more socially isolated than they once were,” she said.

The society has also heard from many caregivers worried that if they themselves get sick, no care plan is available to their loved one, said MacBean. Ordinarily, a family member might have stepped in or a respite care bed would have been made available in the hospital. It is the Society’s understanding these beds have all been cleared during the pandemic.

The province did not respond to the Times Transcript’s request for comment.

MacBean told the Times Transcript that while the society cannot alleviate all of these worries, “We want to help them navigate this as best they can. And we just want people to know that they're not alone. They may be physically alone, but they're not alone in their journey.”

The society can provide support to existing clients, old ones or those who have never contacted them, she said.

As for Charles Ferris, he is glad Sue isn’t alone and has good staff around her, even if she can’t always grasp why he isn’t there in person.

“New Brunswick has a culture of care. It’s quite reassuring to know how much everyone working there cares for my wife,” he said.

• The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. Initiative de journalisme local est financée par le gouvernement du Canada.

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