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An elderly Toronto couple spent their 14th wedding anniversary hand-in-hand after health issues and skyrocketing wait-lists for long-term care facilities have kept them apart for nearly half their marriage.
“It’s just not acceptable, especially at our age,” said Jennifer Brown.
“We get very lonely. We miss each other terribly.”
Brown and her husband, Karl Froehr, have been married since 2003 but have been a couple for more than three decades.
Froehr, 87, has lived in long-term care since a severe stroke in early 2012 left him requiring round-the-clock care.
Brown, 79, resides in a downtown co-operative, Windmill Line Co-op, and comes across town once a week by the TTC’s Wheel-Trans service to spend time with her husband — a routine they’re tired of.
“When you’ve lived together for almost 30 years, their absence is searing,” said Brown.
“Oh, it’s horrendous, just horrendous,” added Froehr in tears.
Brown has been on a priority waiting list since January to join her husband at Lakeside Long-Term Care Centre, but doesn’t know when she will be accepted there, if ever.
“It really is extremely difficult,” said Brown.
“We just became so used to having somebody there to talk to throughout the day, to watch a movie or show together. We were just joined at the hip.”
The couple met at an airport terminal as they both waited for a flight to New York.
“There’s a tap on my shoulder and there’s this, believe it, totally gorgeous man who says to me, ‘Excuse me, but I think we both work at the same place,'” Brown recalled.
They got so swept up in conversation they accidentally boarded a Chicago-bound flight instead.
They did not become a couple until years later.
“When we finally did meet again, we never looked back,” she said.
Their wish on their wedding anniversary is simple — to see more of each other.
“All we want is to be together,” she explained, adding they communicate best when they’re holding hands and looking at one another because the stroke affected Froehr’s movements and his speech.
“I’d like to see more of her,” he said.
With 128 beds at Lakeside, most people can wait around 20 months for a private room. Getting a basic room, shared accommodation, can take more than four years. There are 126 people waiting for a basic room and 44 for a private room, with about two beds becoming available each month, a Toronto Central Local Health Integration Network report showed.
Since Brown’s husband is in care, the provincial government gives her some priority. Her wait time is expected to be shorter, but staff still can’t tell her when a bed will become available.
“Nobody can tell me when it might be,” she said. “It could be a few weeks or it could be a few years. I may not be around.”
The Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care says it is developing a solution to end unpredictable wait times for spouses in a move that will reunite them sooner.
Spokesperson Mark Nesbitt said in an email statement to CBC Toronto, “the ministry is proposing to designtate a small number of ‘reunification priority access’ beds in every long-term care home” that would create more space for spouses who meet the criteria for care.
“Prioritization on the waiting list for reunification priority access beds would rank those separated the longest at the top of the waiting list,” he said.
Officials are currently drafting legislation to amend the Long-Term Care Homes Act, Nesbitt added.
Members of the public can review the amendments and offer feedback until Oct 26. If approved, they would go into effect Jan. 1.
“We love each other. We enjoy each other’s company, but we want more of it,” said Brown.