Mothers and grandmothers living in assisted living centers and nursing homes may not get the expression of love they deeply desire this Mother’s Day: a hug, a kiss on the cheek, a touch of the hand, a face-to-face talk.
Because of the highly contagious novel coronavirus and the lethality of COVID-19, the disease it causes, among senior adults, senior living centers across the state are operating in a state of near shutdown. State guidelines urge no outside visits for residents with few exceptions, strictly monitored access for daily staff, extensive masking, gifts and cards placed in quarantine, major changes in collective meals and other group activities and more.
It is a new, confusing world for residents, workers and family members alike, even for those accustomed to handling the occasional flu or pneumonia outbreak.
“We have never seen anything like this before,” Quality Care of Waco administrator Jonathan Moore said. “The mortality rate, what we’re taking our precautions for, is so high.”
In addition to banning most visitors from outside, Quality Care does a temperature check on each worker before they enter, and those with any potential symptom such as a cough are not allowed in, Moore said.
The facilities have iPads so residents can have video chats with family and loved ones on the outside, and staff workers are doing what they can to help families connect.
“We want to allow as much interaction as possible and we will do anything we can … anything to make the residents feel wanted and loved,” Moore said.
The pain of COVID-19 protocol changes is still fresh for Waco resident Janet Jones. Her near daily visits to her 98-year-old mother, Anna Marie Meek, were stopped cold by protocols that went into effect in mid-March at St. Catherine’s Center, where her mom has lived the past six years.
“It was during spring break, the second week of it, and I was literally on my way to St. Catherine’s when they called,” Jones said.
Jones, a reading coach at La Vega Primary School, was wrestling with how to maintain contact with her mother when a complication accentuated her feeling of helplessness.
Her mother had developed bronchitis and had been sent to the Ascension Providence emergency room for treatment. Jones could not visit or stay with her there, either. Compounding the frightening experience of a hospital visit with no family at hand for support, Meek returned to St. Catherine’s only to encounter a required two-week quarantine because of her trip outside the center, Jones said.
Center nurses helped facilitate video calls between mother and daughter, but it was weeks before they could see each other face-to-face, almost in person but separated by a glass window. Still, coming that close was bliss for Jones.
“We could actually touch — through the window,” she said.
Even without the daily in-person visits of the past and a new procedure to pick up and drop off Mom’s laundry, Jones keeps in touch with a nightly phone call.
“Since she’s in a very structured environment, she doesn’t see all the news about the pandemic,” Jones said. “She sees it more of something at St. Catherine’s that they don’t want to spread.”
With 38 years’ experience as the public relations director for Providence Hospital, Jones fully understands the reasons for the safeguards and is sympathetic with the nurses and staffers who have to work with the changes.
“I totally get it, but it’s hard,” she said.
For Darlene Schoenrock, the coronavirus shutdown came at an agonizing time. Her 94-year-old grandmother, Beatrice “Becky” Aldridge, who Schoenrock said is suffering from early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, had been living on her own with a daytime caregiver at her home in Ranger. Then a neighborhood passerby found her lying in a ditch early one morning with no memory of what had happened, and family members decided to move her to a nursing care facility in Hillsboro, then to Bellmead and closer to her granddaughter.
The day after Aldridge was moved to The Atrium of Bellmead, coronavirus protocols shut down outside visits. Her first days in a new environment away from her home and without a familiar face to help her navigate the change left Aldridge understandably confused.
“It’s been horrible,” Schoenrock said. “She can’t understand why, (this has happened) and now we can’t see her.”
The Atrium’s staff worked hard to connect grandmother and granddaughter. They’re “awesome,” Schoenrock said. But visits via video call have been emotional ones, she said. She has been able to drop off food for her grandmother on a regular basis.
Both Schoenrock and Jones had high praise for nurses and staff members trying to facilitate communications during a time when visits are shut down. Ila Thomason, director of nursing at Ridgecrest Retirement and Healthcare Community, agreed her employees work as best as they can within the new restrictions to allow residents a chance to talk by phone or video call with family or wheel them to a spot where they can look out a window and see family members.
Cards and letters sit in a 24-hour quarantine before delivery, as do floral arrangements, but no perishable food items are accepted, Thomason said.
About 1,700 people live in full nursing care facilities in McLennan County, according to figures from the Health and Human Services’ Area Agency on Aging, but no estimates were available of those in the more than a dozen assisted living facilities operating in the county. The 2010 U.S. Census found 14.4% of the county’s population at the time was 65 or older, about 34,000 people.
It is important to keep contact with seniors in living centers for their emotional well-being during this time of near-quarantine, said Jim Ellor, a gerontologist and Baylor University social work professor.
“Simply being able to see a loved one through a window is a good thing,” Ellor said.
Seniors in assisted living centers or nursing homes can become anxious over changes in staffing, meal schedules and other parts of their daily routines, as well as problems in their families and the wider world, he said. Depression also is an issue for many.
Even without in-person visits, phone or visual contacts made on a regular schedule help and give a resident something to anticipate, Ellor said. Cards or small gifts can provide something tactile and serve as a reminder of the person sending them, but facility staff should be contacted first to see if such gifts are permitted or advised. He noted, too, that church, youth and social groups have the manpower and time to write and send cards to members in a residential center.
At the same time, those wanting to set up visual or phone contacts with residents should temper that interest with patience.
“Don’t be overly aggressive in contacting the (residential center staff),” Ellor said. “They’re very busy at this point. The biggest thing is to be kind to the staff and thank them for hanging in there.”
Creativity and advanced planning also help. Both came into play for Fred W. Hills, whose father Fred I. Hills celebrated his 89th birthday last month at Ridgecrest Retirement and Healthcare Community. The son, a McLennan Community College vice president, credited his wife, Barbara, for much of the celebration planning, with a large cake ordered and delivered the day before to allow for quarantine, birthday cards sent from relatives across the country and, on the birthday, a Zoom teleconference with family members.
“He was surprised by it and very happy,” the younger Hills said. “It’s lonely in there.”
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