How the Father Dowd home saved Christmas

Ray Cassell and Louise Monteiro, aka Santa and Mrs. Claus, prepare for the holidays at the Father Dowd Residential Centre
Ray Cassell and Louise Monteiro, aka Santa and Mrs. Claus, prepare for the holidays at the Father Dowd Residential Centre

Despite COVID-19 restrictions, a long-term care centre ensures residents enjoy the spirit of the holidays

There will be no children visiting the Father Dowd Residential Centre this holiday season. No choirs, no communal turkey dinners in the dining room, and fewer family members to see their elderly parents. But residents will still celebrate a spirit of joy and generosity, thanks to the ingenuity and devotion of staff.

Despite the coronavirus restrictions, employees at the Côte-des-Neiges long-term care centre have poured heart and soul into ensuring that residents can enjoy one of the most anticipated dates on their calendar.

“Christmas is big here. I said to myself, ‘We’ve got to do something to get residents’ minds off the craziness that’s going on,’” says Ray Cassell, a recreation therapist who organizes the celebrations.

It was still summer when Mr. Cassell began to wrestle with how to arrange the festivities. He knew that Christmastime was important to residents at an institution whose roots reach back 155 years in the Irish Catholic community of Montreal. In holidays past, the Father Dowd home has welcomed the Saint Patrick’s Choir, barbershop singing ensembles and crowds of volunteers; every year since 1968, high-school students have poured in by school bus to sing carols and offer gifts for what is known as the Father Dowd Project.

Not this year. Restrictions to control the spread of the coronavirus put all the traditional activities off limits.

But Mr. Cassell didn’t want to let residents down. So he came up with a plan. Luc Martel, an employee in Maintenance, cut the outlines of a sleigh in plywood and painted it red, green and gold; then he attached the pieces to a trolley to create a Santa sled. The Father Dowd Auxiliary donated 134 blankets, and Housekeeping staff at the home labelled each one with a resident’s name.

On Dec. 23, Mr. Cassell and Louise Monteiro, also a recreation therapist, will dress up as Santa and Mrs. Claus and push their “sleigh” along the floors to hand out presents, accompanied by Christmas tunes.

Instead of communal meals in the downstairs dining room, the traditional Christmas dinner will be served, with proper physical distancing, on individual floors. The Dr. Clown Foundation will provide entertaining skits online instead of in person. There will be sing-alongs and a horse-racing game on a board, in which participants can wager on winners and be eligible for prizes.

With all the upheavals caused by the coronavirus, residents need a celebration this year more than ever, Mr. Cassell says.

“Their whole lives have changed,” he says. “They’re restricted to their floors. They’re looking at all the staff in masks. They can’t sit beside their friends anymore like they used to, because we have to space them apart.

“I’ve been working here for 44 years, and I’ve never seen hardships like this.”

With fewer visits by family members, staff have taken on a larger role in their lives, he adds. “We are their families right now.”

The celebrations are helping underscore one thing: not even a global pandemic will stop dedicated staff from our CIUSSS from providing the seniors in their care with the warmth of a holiday celebration. “This could be the last Christmas for some residents,” Mr. Cassell says. “I want to make sure it’s special.”