"It seems like people don't know, the government doesn't know, the importance of family... we get so lonesome, so frustrated."

That from Tina Doell currently living under the strict health measures put in place at Manitoba personal care homes in light of COVID-19.

"When your son or daughter comes, those hugs are healing," Doell says. "It makes you feel better, you feel you can keep going. And they deprive us of that."

A granddaughter of a personal care home resident, Sharon Webb has initiated a grassroots group to advocate for older adults who she says are feeling isolated from their loved ones against their will. She notes visits are currently hampered by the many restrictions, and have stripped residents of basic rights.

While they applaud the government's swift actions to protect seniors, she says the prolonged isolation comes at a steep cost, "the quality of life and freedom of our seniors living in personal care homes."

"They have every right to make an informed decision on what risks they want to assume to live a quality of life that is defined by them," Webb says, adding personal care home residents have been robbed of the essential human need for family relationships.

Currently, many facilities permit short, one-person visits, once a week. Webb explains unfortunately, for those with multiple children it can mean multiple weeks between seeing each other.

However, Webb says they don't point the blame at local care homes, but remain dedicated to being a voice for seniors who feel the isolation is causing prolonged suffering.

Salem Home CEO Sherry Janzen explains as a licenced PCH in Manitoba they are subject to all Public Health Orders.

"We know those guidelines aren't what families want to hear," Janzen says, adding they're working hard to find ways to make visits more meaningful.

"We have very clear restrictions that we must follow," Janzen says. "I understand how families are frustrated, and we as staff are frustrated too because we know what it's doing to the residents."

"But this is out of our control," Janzen adds.

Members of the advocacy group say it's painful to see the effect prolonged social isolation on their loved ones.

Health Minister and Morden-Winkler MLA Cameron Friesen says COVID-19 has disrupted almost every aspect of life. However, he says they continue to expand visits while striking a balance between family connections and mitigating the risk of an outbreak.

"Especially for that population that is very, very vulnerable," Friesen says, adding they've seen the dire statistics of 4,200 deaths in long-term care facilities in Quebec.

He notes with Manitoba's continued success with low COVID-19 numbers, they will continue make decisions based on the evidence.

"We continue to think about what the next steps should be as we lift some of the restrictions in Manitoba... but make no mistake, we are not out of the woods yet," Friesen says.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Manitoba Association of Residential and Continuing Care Homes for the Elderly, which includes Salem Home in Winkler and Tabor Home in Morden, is calling on the government to increase funding for basic operations, saying they have been chronically underfunded for more than a decade.

"At minimum, all personal care homes must receive operating budgets that reflect the annual cost of inflation, the increased needs of residents, and basic upkeep of their capital infrastructure," Executive Director Julie Turenne-Maynard says.

Although resident needs have increased, she notes staffing levels have remained the same since 2009. and is calling on the provincial government to increase the hours of care from 3.6 hours per resident per day to a minimum 4.1 hours.

"Faith-based and community-supported organizations have been providing services to elderly Manitobans for over 100 years and have a wealth of experience. We can be an effective partner to government in jointly finding solutions to the long-term problems of under-funding, inadequate staffing, and unsuitable polices and regulations," Turenne-Maynard says.

More than 80% of COVID-19 deaths in Canada have been linked to long-term care facilities. Manitoba has had seven deaths in total, with one related to a personal care home.

"While we have been successful so far, we cannot be complacent about COVID-19," Turenne-Maynard says. "We know that having to provide increasingly complex care without adequate funding leaves personal care home residents and staff vulnerable... now more so than ever before."

Speaking with another local personal care home resident, Mary Goertzen, they expressed the frustration of the firsthand experience. "I think it's unfair. The workers can take care of us... and our children can't come close enough to touch us. Why are one person's germs so much more dangerous?"

Anne Penner is part of the advocacy group and says it's painful to see the effect social isolation has had on her mom in a personal care home during this time.

"You can see her losing the life in her eyes, and I totally believe it's because of the lack of family support. They don't deserve this... I feel like they should just have more rights."