Drive-by birthday parades, mariachis in parking lots, loving gestures through windows — in the age of COVID-19, we’ve all seen heartwarming stories about reaching out to elderly, locked-down loved ones.
We need all the “happy” we can get these days.
But there’s another, very different picture most don’t see. Isolation, confusion, fear and depression during the pandemic have affected seniors, especially in nursing homes or assisted living. Most news stories about these institutions are statistical counts of outbreaks. But behind the numbers are the human tragedies.
Because of the coronavirus, many of our graying “Greatest Generation” are living out their last days in solitary confinement, even as we try to protect them from the illness.
In nursing homes and assisted-living communities, this deadly pathogen can spread like wildfire. For the elderly and frail, it becomes “almost a perfect killing machine,” according to Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association and the National Center for Assisted Living.
Both state and federal governments have issued lockdown orders aimed at stopping the disease. That means no visitors to nursing homes, state-supported living centers, assisted-living facilities and long-term care, except in end-of-life situations.
Care homes have a little leeway regarding enforcement. Some allow families to deliver gifts, cards and comfort items to residents; others do not.
“It’s a horrible situation. It’s just heartbreaking,” one longtime doctor who sees geriatric patients in local nursing homes and hospitals told me. “For a lot of these people, the family is their only anchor. It is who they are. It’s more important than eating or exercising. To be cut off from their families is completely devastating.”
I’ve seen it happen. Back in February, an active, independent friend and mentor in her 80s developed a urinary tract infection and was hospitalized. Her devoted children flocked to her bedside to cheer her on, and she recovered enough to go to a rehab facility to gain her strength back — just as no-visitors policies were put in place.
Alone, confined to her room, she developed another infection, returned to the ER and isolation. She was tested for COVID-19. By the time her family arrived, they could only watch her die through a glass partition. (Too late, the test came back negative).
“She never saw our faces after she went into the rehab,” her daughter said. “Before COVID, we could have been there encouraging her, reminding her of what she was to us all. But, we didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye.”
We must find solutions. In the age of Zoom, Skype and FaceTime, virtual visits can make an enormous difference. Yet often, overstressed nursing-home staff can’t even facilitate a simple phone call for days. In many places, iPads, table-display tablets or even cellphones are in short supply. Some seniors can’t cope with the new tech, and disabilities make it harder.
AARP and other groups are lobbying the federal government to require that nursing homes provide residents virtual visits with their families and friends. A single employee dedicated to coordinating those communications could be invaluable.
This already occurs in a few cases, where some facilities or wonderful aides are making all the difference. It happens too seldom, especially in Texas, where nursing homes are consistently ranked among the worst in the U.S., according to Families for Better Care.
We’re all getting older. Now is the time to push for change.