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Separated but still connected

Staying in touch with your loved one in long term care

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Hundreds of miles away from me, locked down in her long-term-care facility, my aunt is worried.

About us.

“You’re out there with it,” she says, meaning coronavirus. 

Inside, she is surrounded by staff and has enough food. She feels, I think, protected, as much as anyone can be. 

I’d hoped to visit her, and now can’t. The rules about visitors changed rapidly as the situation evolved. A few weeks ago, in many facilities, you could see family as long as you stayed outside, visiting through a closed window. There are some great videos out there about the creativity people used to connect. 

Now, we too are staying inside. The extra level of distance means we’re even more reliant on staff to do the things we would normally have done—to be the loving presence.

Strengths and weaknesses

Out here, we think of long-term care facilities as dangerous. Look at the place in Kirkland, Washington, we say, associated with at least 37 deaths. 

Nursing homes and skilled nursing centers are by nature more likely to see deaths by coronavirus. Their population consists of the elderly, disabled, or those juggling chronic health conditions—all risk factors for severe illness. Memory loss means they might forget about social distancing. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than four million Americans are in nursing homes or skilled nursing centers. The CDC adds, “According to the World Health Organization report, the fatality rate for COVID-19 patients older than 80 in China was 21.9 percent, while patients of all ages with no underlying chronic condition had a fatality rate of 1.4 percent.”

But by nature, the facilities can also be more in control. Outsiders can be forbidden, and staff and residents can be checked regularly; there’s food and even toilet paper. 

At the Care Center at Sunset Lake (also known as the Sullivan County Adult Care Center) in Liberty, NY, they’ve changed procedure in a number of ways to cope with COVID-19. Among them (listed on their website www.sullivanny.us/departments/adultcarecenter.)

  • Residents’ temperatures are checked each shift (three times a day)
  • Staff wears personal protective equipment. The CDC has recommended face masks, respirators if available, gowns, gloves and eye protection. 
  • Group activities are canceled. 
  • Staff temperatures are checked at each shift.
  • Public Works is sanitizing the facility more frequently

Visitors, of course, are restricted. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recommendations prohibit visitors to keep the virus spread under control. It’s necessary, but it’s difficult for families and rough on the loved one. If your family member has dementia, you may be relying on regular visits to help them remember you. If you did something for them, like make a special treat or handle those little personal grooming things, you can’t, now—moments of connection, made impossible.

And what is there to do about it all?

If you’re concerned about your loved one at Sunset Lake, the “best way to get information is to call your loved one’s case manager, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.,” said Kristen Kitson, marketing outreach coordinator. At other facilities, you might have a social worker or a supervisor. Call the front desk to get started.

If you’re having trouble reaching or talking to a family member who has trouble communicating, again, talk to the staff. Kitson says staff at the Care Center are on duty 24/7, and it’s the same with other places. Some centers provide technology for video chatting; check in and see if that’s a possibility. Discuss with the staff and make an appointment for the call. 

 What if your loved one becomes ill with COVID-19? “If you are the primary contact for the resident, you will be notified of any change in their status that would normally warrant a call, including a positive diagnosis of COVID-19,” Kitson said. If your family member is elsewhere, call the facility to check on the procedure if you haven’t been told already. Make sure they have the correct person to call in case of illness.

As you might have guessed, communication is key. “Please know,” said Kitson, “that we are dedicated to providing exceptional care to all our residents. We are all in this together. Please follow the Care Center on Facebook for updates and photos. The Sullivan County’s webpage offers updates and supports.” And of course, you can always call. 

As people hold parades of appreciation for health care workers, you might wonder what you can do for nursing home or skilled nursing staff. 

“There is a saying, ‘some superheroes wear capes, ours wear scrubs,’” said Kitson. “Each day the staff leave their family to care for yours. Your family becomes our family. Staff are dedicated and compassionate. Tell them thank you and be patient with them as they work to provide care through this challenging health crisis.”

My sister just sent off a care package to an ICU nurse she knows. Inside was “toilet paper, chocolate bars, nice hand creams and ‘hand masks’,” she said. “Who knew there were hand masks? The cream is to help with her hands that must be raw from so much washing.” 

 I asked my aunt what she, as a resident, would like. I have a box of homemade cookies, could I send them? Probably not, she said. Considering it would be mailed from New York... yeah, probably not, we decide. 

We laugh a little.

“Phone calls, every few days, that would be good,” she said. Yes, she’s a little lonely. But most of all, she’s worried. About us. 

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