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Coronavirus and the elderly: How is life inside a French retirement home amid COVID-19 outbreak?

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Nicole Vignault sitting in her room at the Hector Malot nursing home, Fontenay-sous-Bois, France
Nicole Vignault sitting in her room at the Hector Malot nursing home, Fontenay-sous-Bois, France   -   Copyright  Euronews
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One of the most shocking aspects of France's coronavirus crisis has been the number of deaths in retirement homes.

More than 40 per cent of the country's 19,000 COVID-19 fatalities have been in such establishments.

At Hector Malot nursing home on the outskirts of Paris, staff are doing everything in their power to stop more deaths.

But it took weeks for them to get protective masks and even today they are still short of disposable gowns and oxygen concentrators - a device that removes nitrogen from the air and produces oxygen-enriched gas for patients to inhale.

“Due to the number of cases we have here we’re almost at our capacity of concentrators," said Doctor Nourddine Ballouche, who has been monitoring and treating patients at the nursing home.

"And that can be a problem because if we don’t have oxygen for a patient that needs it, we will not be able to keep them here and will have to take them to hospital."

Taking the elderly to hospitals can be fatal – in intensive care units running low on ventilators, doctors have reported making the “impossible” choice of selecting patients with better chances of surviving the virus.

The elderly are not merely patients, they’re first and foremost people. And these people are in need of affection, of love.

In certain care homes, according to Dr Ballouche, the elderly can receive the same treatment they would get in normal hospital wards.

"We give them oxygen when they’re short of breath, we reduce the temperature because it’s a source of suffering and dehydration, and we help them eat and drink orally but also sometimes through an IV (intravenous therapy)," said Dr Ballouche

"That’s the treatment. Sometimes we can give antibiotics but they don’t act on the virus but may have an effect on associated bacterial infection.”

But that hasn’t been enough to prevent numerous deaths in these facilities – the Hector Malet nursing home that Euronews visited is part of a collective of sites that house 1,150 people. They have registered 90 COVID-19 deaths so far.

'Extremely unpleasant'

The most effective way of preventing the spread of the virus here too, administrators note, is to limit the number of people that residents come into contact with to a strict minimum.

Lockdown rules imposed in March forced the elderly residents of this nursing home in Fontenay-sous-Bois to isolate in their rooms – which caused them “great pain”.

They say they miss wandering around the corridors, getting some sunshine in the gardens and chatting to co-residents face-to-face.

"The hardest thing for me is being confined,” said Nicole Vignault, a 96-year-old resident.

“I have had a busy life. During the resistance, in the war, I was young and ended up in prison (for political reasons) and that left me with a big trauma.

"So not being able to open my door and go for a walk in the corridors for me is something extremely unpleasant.”

Family visits to resume

The gruelling figures and inability of many care homes to cope have forced the EU Commission to recommend confinement for the elderly until the end of 2020 - adding to the distress of senior citizens and their families.

But the French government announced families will be allowed to visit residents once again starting 20 April.

France’s health minister said the form these visits will take will be decided by nursing homes – family members will most likely not be allowed to touch their loved ones.

The news will certainly be welcomed in Hector Malot, where administrators were already looking for alternative solutions to combat loneliness in times of isolation.

"The lockdown has had an effect from a medical point of view, but it is an inconvenience to deprive our residents of their main reason to live - the affection and love from their families,” said Dominique Perriot, director of the facility.

“The elderly are not merely patients, they’re first and foremost people. And these people are in need of affection, of love.”