CALGARY — Rita Owen died in a Calgary care home three weeks shy of her 92nd birthday never knowing she'd contracted COVID-19.
"At her age, I just wanted her to enjoy what time she had and not worry," her son, Michael Owen, said of the decision not to tell her.
Owen describes his mother as a fun-loving social butterfly who loved gossiping with friends over tea and playing slots at the casino.
"She had quite a zest for life," he said from Gabriola, B.C.
She was also a devout Catholic. Had she not married late in life and had her only child, Owen said he could picture his mother becoming a nun.
"Most people actually thought she was."
Rita Owen died on April 3 at Calgary's McKenzie Towne Continuing Care Centre, where a COVID-19 outbreak has killed 21 residents.
Owen said his mother moved into the home after she broke her hip in a fall in 2014. She was so sick then that she was given last rites.
But she pulled through.
"Every day past then has been borrowed time, extra time, bonus time."
Owen said his mother was popular at McKenzie Towne.
"She was always wandering out of her room to go meet people and talk to the staff, all the way up to the director of care," he said. "She would just barge into her office."
His mother broke her hip again in January and was just starting to bounce back when the pandemic hit.
He visited for the last time in March. Unknown to him at the time, the virus was already spreading through the home.
He took his mom out for pancakes at Phil's, her favourite restaurant. They ate Swiss Chalet for dinner together in the lobby.
They watched a Toronto Blue Jays pre-season baseball game in a different ward from hers — she liked the TV in the other lounge better. It was in that ward where the first COVID-19 cases would later break out.
Owen said in hindsight he is puzzled about why early precautions weren't taken then, such as hand-washing stations or cautionary signs. No one had yet tested positive in the centre, but there was a well-publicized outbreak at a care home in British Columbia.
Rita Owen tested positive for COVID-19 a week and a half after the visit. She had a sore throat and some sniffles.
"Initially I wasn't all that concerned because she was a tough lady. And I thought if anybody's going to pull this off, she will."
Owen said he spoke to his mother on the phone twice more She seemed tired and confused. She was angry that she was being told not to leave her room.
She deteriorated quickly. Owen said isolation may have sapped her will to fight.
He stresses that staff at McKenzie Towne did the best they could under the circumstances and did not neglect his mother.
"The night she went, they were checking on her every couple of minutes, while still trying to deal with other people in the ward that were sick."
A nurse called to tell him his mother's time was close, but that she was not in any pain.
Another call came an hour and a half later. She had died.
Owen said there should be an investigation into how to better handle future outbreaks.
"What happens in a private nursing home when the staff start dropping like flies? Whose responsibility is it? It should fall to the provincial government or the local health authority to send in help," he said.
"There's got to be a contingency plan to at least deal with the staffing."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 17, 2020
Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press