Anita and Wolf Gottschalk have been inseparable throughout their 62 years of marriage — but now, the elderly couple has been apart for eight months, forced to say a heartbreaking goodbye over and over again.
Their granddaughter, Ashley Bartyik, says a backlog in the Canadian health care system has made it impossible to move Wolf, 83, out of his transitional nursing home and into the care facility where Anita, 81, is living.
In the meantime, Bartyik drives Anita the 30 minutes from her Surrey, British Columbia, care complex to Wolf's every other day so she can see her ailing husband. The visits always end in tears for the couple, Bartyik said.
She posted a photo on Tuesday of Anita and Wolf weeping as they said goodbye — and explained that the situation had become even more desperate.
"Today he was diagnosed with lymphoma. Besides that limiting his time and making this more urgent, his dementia is growing ever stronger each day, but his memory of my grandmother has not faded a inch...yet," she wrote.
The heart-wrenching photo has since been shared more than 5,600 times. Bartyik told NBC News she hopes it will attract the attention of policymakers, who can help not just her grandparents, but other elderly Canadians who are waiting for subsidized beds.
"We're going through the system blind. It's not something you're ever taught to navigate," she said.
The ordeal began in January, when Wolf was hospitalized for congestive heart failure, and then moved to Yale Road Centre, a transitional facility where the average stay is between 4 and 12 weeks, according to Fraser Health Authority. But after being hospitalized twice more for heart problems, Wolf kept getting bumped to this bottom of the wait list to go to a long-term care facility, Bartyik said. Health workers deemed him too ill to go home to his wife Anita.
Then two months ago, Anita, 81, who has a pacemaker, moved into an assisted living complex at the Residences at Morgan Heights. The complex is set up for residents with varying health needs, and Bartyik has been trying to get her grandfather moved there, even if in a different wing.
"My grandfather needs more complex care, so he will have a nurse with him, whereas my grandmother doesn't need that," Bartyik said. "Morgan Heights offers both under the same roof. She could tuck him into bed at night and then go back to her room."
A communications consultant for Fraser Health told NBC News that "efforts are ongoing to bring them together."
"We are trying to reunify them," Jake Adrian said. "But it's a case of them having different care needs, so what we're trying to do is make sure both of their care needs can be met in one facility."
Adrian couldn't say when the two might be reunited.
"It's a fluid situation, so it's just a matter of making sure all the basics are covered and we have the care that each person needs in the care facility. So things may change today, they may change next week, but we're hopeful we'll find something available so we can accommodate them."
The separation has taken such a toll on the family that Bartyik, 29, quit her job as a restaurant manager to become her grandparents' full-time caretaker.
Bartyik said she's gotten sympathetic messages from people from all over the world, "90 percent" of which are inquiring about whether the family is accepting donations. Even online fundraiser GoFundMe has reached out to her, offering to set one up, she said.
"With our health care system, you can pay for a bed for 6,000, 7,000, 8,000 dollars a month. If we did the GoFundMe, we may or may not be able to get him a bed quicker," she said. "We know we would probably have the money to move him into a privatized bed. But that would defeat the purpose. There's thousands of other families who are in our position."
Instead, she hopes their story will prompt a policy change.
"Best-case scenario would be number one, my grandfather getting in as soon as possible into the Residence at Morgan Heights where my grandmother is. Number two would be if a policymaker or someone in our local government could become an advocate for the lack of beds," she said.
"Not every grandparent has kids or grandkids and they're maybe settling for subsidized beds away from their loved ones because they don't know how to navigate the system. So we want to bring light to that."