The coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, has put the elderly and sick at most risk of complications, or death, from infection. The virus has also placed the loved ones of these individuals in perpetual fear.
Government officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have strongly advised older Americans and the immunocompromised to stay at home and avoid contact with others. Public figures have also urged family members, friends, neighbors and anyone else to keep their distance from these members of society, in hopes to prevent contraction of the virus. Nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other senior-focused centers are restricting access to visitors.
These facilities house some of the most vulnerable people when it comes to the virus. These lockdowns are understandable, and in many cases, welcome, but they’re also distressing for certain family members, such as those who visit their spouses and parents every day or week, or who are worried the person they love won’t get the proper care or be the same when this is all over. Many residents of nursing homes suffer from Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, forcing some families to find ways to keep their memories active during this time of quarantine. Other residents may have terminal diseases, leaving loved ones to fear the worst.
Eugene Skurnick, a former councilman in Englewood, N.J., visited his wife every day since she first moved to a nursing home in December, and only stopped when her facility began restricting access to visitors because of the coronavirus last month. His wife, Blanche, has dementia, as well as cervical cancer, and is in hospice care. While at the nursing home, his wife may not have remembered every detail or talked the way she did before her diagnosis, but they’d dance, and he’d help her with her lunch or befriend others at the facility. Now, neither he nor their three adult children can see her. “If I don’t see her for a week or a week and a half, it isn’t the end of the world,” he said. “The thing that concerns me and bothers me, when you have cancer, you could die any moment.”
“I was just thinking that while reading the Times,” he said. “I was thinking, what if Blanche just dies and I didn’t get a chance to see her?”
The question likely weighs on the minds of many family members, whether residents have a terminal illness or are at a center that could suffer an outbreak, like the nursing home in Kirkland, Wash. in February.
Skurnick, who has been married to his wife for 53 years, said he finds solace in knowing the CDC issued guidance that allows visitors in “certain compassionate care situations,” such as end of life. There is no clear definition for “end of life,” according to AARP, and it would be left to the facility or family to decide the timing.
This situation has been difficult for him and his family, Skurnick said, but he does try to find a few brighter moments during this crisis. Young neighbors came by to drop off Girl Scout Cookies — from a distance — but he said he made them smile when he told them he needed those cookies because he was starving. He keeps himself busy, by tending to his neighbor’s lawn, too.
Other family members try to keep as much contact with their relatives in facilities as possible. Hervé Damas, a doctor in Miami, talks to his 88-year-old father, who lives in a nursing home in New York, often — mostly because his dad calls to check up on him. “He actually is calling me to give me advice,” he said. “He’s still worried about me.”
Damas said one of the first things he wants to do when this crisis is over is hop on a plane with his family to visit his dad. The last time he saw him was in January when he made a surprise visit to his father’s facility. “I’m happy I did that,” he said.
As a doctor, Damas also offers advice on how to manage the difficult scenario of missing, and worrying about, a loved one: Stay proactive, and in communication with the facility. Sometimes, these centers will reach out first, but they may also be bogged down with operations and calls, so follow up if necessary. Having a good understanding of their protocols and procedures will mitigate some of the fear of how the site is caring for a family member.
Damas also said families should let their relatives express their feelings and be supportive as much as possible. Families should also be honest about the situation, and explain the measures they need to take to keep loved ones safe. “Things are spiraling out of control and you may be thinking you’re doing them some great favor by protecting them and keeping them in the dark,” he said. “If it were you, you’d probably want to know.”
The CDC recommends Americans also take care of their mental health, including taking breaks from the news or social media because hearing about the pandemic constantly can be stressful; taking deep breaths and meditating; eating well-balanced meals and exercising (although away from others); and “making time to unwind,” the agency said. “Try to do some other activities you enjoy.”
Life in a nursing home will be isolating during the coronavirus crisis, but there are ways family members can keep their relatives — and themselves — as content as can be during this difficult period. Visitors can’t go inside the facilities, but many families are heading to these sites anyway to chat through windows, or at least hold up signs. Some centers have teleconferencing set up so that residents can video chat with family and friends. In other cases, even a simple phone call can cheer someone up — and that’s whether they’re at a nursing home, assisted living facility or in their own homes.
Skurnick said thinking about his times with Blanche, and talking about her with others, is comforting. His wife was a board-certified internist with a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University. She often went to work with bags of books in the event patients came in with children.
“When people hear about Blanche, they remember how much Blanche did for people,” he said. “That makes me feel good.”
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