St. Joe’s dementia patients have powerful virtual visits with loved ones

Dementia patients at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton are having powerful virtual interactions with their loved ones – so much that some patients are hugging their iPads.

Owing to COVID-19 and the hospital’s no-visitor policy, Arlene Jeffery hasn’t physically seen her husband, Bill Jeffery, in more than a month. Bill is a patient in the hospital’s seniors mental health program.

Arlene says she relies on St. Joe’s Virtual Visits program, which has been rolled out across the hospital, to take comfort in knowing her husband is doing OK during the pandemic.

Bill’s disease is advanced, so we don’t have the best conversations to begin with,” says Arlene. “The other day when he looked at the screen, he said, ‘Hey, I know that lady.’ That made my day.”

Likewise, Ana Yurgan-Rotella hasn’t seen her father, Peter Jurgan, who is less advanced in his illness, since the pair last shared a pizza in the hospital cafeteria.

“The past month has been one of the most difficult as we go through this journey of my father’s illness,” Ana says. “I know these virtual visits have made survival through this pandemic and his illness easier.”

For Ana and Peter, virtual visits provide the pair with the opportunity to stay in touch, and plan their next meal together, once it’s safe to see each other again.

“My father has something to look forward to now,” Ana says.

Dr. Jonathan Crowson, a psychiatrist at St. Joe’s specializing in seniors mental health, says family contact is especially important for people with dementia. 

“Family visits enable people with dementia to access their memories and remain connected to their own past – which really means connected to their own personhood,” he says. “We have witnessed people whose illness is so advanced hugging the iPad when they heard their family speak to them.

“It is those moments that really underline how important it is for us to make every effort to maintain those contacts at this time.”

About the Virtual Visits program

Through the program, inpatients have access to hospital-supplied iPads loaded with video-call software to keep in touch while in hospital. Two generous donors have made the Virtual Visits program possible at St. Joe’s. With more than $85,000 contributed by the Ever Hopeful Fund and the St. Elizabeth Home Society, St. Joseph’s Healthcare Foundation was able to grant funds towards purchasing dedicated iPads—enough to provide one device for every eight patients in the hospital.