Long-term care company cuts ties with executive for comments made during meeting

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A long-term care provider's decision to cut ties with an executive who made disparaging remarks about the relatives of residents struck by the COVID-19 pandemic falls short of the mark, family members said Friday as they continued to push for greater accountability.

They said Sienna Senior Living's decision to part ways with former executive vice-president of operations Joanne Dykeman does little to address their concerns about the care their relatives are receiving. Dykeman's comments, they added, raise questions about the company's overall commitment to residents and their families.

Sienna announced Dykeman's departure a day after she was overheard mocking family members of seniors living at a home in Woodbridge, Ont., which has been grappling with a deadly COVID-19 outbreak.

Immediately following an online video conference to discuss the situation at Woodbridge Vista Care Community, attendees reported hearing Dykeman refer to them as litigious and blood-sucking when she thought the call had been disconnected.

Sienna declined to verify the substance of Dykeman's comments, but said they "fell far short of our expectations" and apologized to members of the Woodbridge Vista community.

For Mike di Donato, whose 92-year-old grandmother was hospitalized after contracting COVID-19 at the home, the company's actions weren't good enough.

"There's a culture problem there," the 43-year-old said in a telephone interview. "There needs to be change."

Di Donato said his grandmother moved to the facility last fall and received excellent care for the first several months of her residency.

He said his family did not become truly concerned until early May when the first positive cases were identified at the facility.

Di Donato said his grandmother tested positive for the virus on May 17, but he did not receive an update from Woodbridge Vista's resident doctor until more than a week later.

That call, he said, came hours after the Ontario government released a damning military report about horrific conditions in five long-term care homes where soldiers had been deployed to provide support, including another facility owned by Sienna. The report detailed a litany of disturbing findings, including improper hygiene practices and inadequate efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Di Donato said he learned last weekend his grandmother was one of 18 Woodbridge Vista residents sent to hospital with the virus. In the days since, he said her condition has deteriorated and his family was forced to say what they fear will be their final goodbyes via video.

Dykeman's comments, he said, came Wednesday night during a Zoom call with dozens of concerned relatives.

He described her conduct during the meeting as "callous," saying she did not seem truly engaged with the family's concerns and declined to answer specific questions about the ongoing outbreak.

Once the call had officially concluded, he said, he and several attendees overheard her remarks. Di Donato and others present reported hearing Dykeman refer to relatives as "blood-sucking class-action lawsuit people" and mock concerns expressed by some at the meeting.

Dykeman, who did not respond to request for comment, no longer worked for Sienna as of Thursday afternoon.

That same day, the Ontario government said management of Woodbridge Vista was being reassigned to William Osler Health System, a nearby hospital where patients were already receiving treatment. Data from the local public health authority indicated more than 20 residents had died from the virus, while more than 100 had fallen ill. More than 40 staff members were also infected.

"Despite receiving hospital support, Woodbridge Vista Care Community has been unable to contain the spread of COVID-19," read a statement from the Ministry of Long-Term Care. "These steps will enable a rigorous management structure to help contain the spread of the disease and assist in returning their home to normal operations."

Sienna said it has developed a six-point plan to protect residents, noting Dykeman's remarks were not consistent with those efforts.  

"Our residents and their loved ones are deserving of our respect at all times and as a company we will ensure this respect guides our every action," Sienna said, adding its "renewal" efforts include improving communication with families.

Di Donato said he questions Sienna's commitment to change, but hopes the Dykeman controversy will force the company's hand. 

"If she had disconnected properly from that Zoom call, would we be talking today? Probably not," he said.

"They would have just kept doing what they're doing."

Michelle McQuigge and Salmaan Farooqui, The Canadian Press

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