KEARNEY — Jane Mena-Werth moved her mother Patricia Werthimer from San Francisco to CountryHouse Residence for Memory Care a year ago, but because of COVID-19, she barely gets to see her.
“We used to see my mother five days a week. We’d take her for drives. We’d watch TV in her room or have her for dinner at my house, or eat with her at CountryHouse. It was great,” Mena-Werth said.
But ever since COVID-19 invaded in March, Mena-Werth is limited to a once-a-week visit with her mother in the CountryHouse garden. She cannot go into her mother’s room.
Residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities are the invisible victims of COVID-19.
People older than 65, especially those with underlying health conditions, are most at risk from the virus. In Nebraska, people over 65 account for 76% of the COVID-19 deaths in the state as of Monday, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
Ann DeLaet, who with her husband Lynn lives at the Central Nebraska Veterans’ Home, feels the loss. She craves in-person visits with her children and grandchildren, but those were stopped last March.
“We’re like prisoners. We’re suffering emotionally and physically. At our age, we have nothing to live for except our families. We want to see them in person and love them,” DeLaet said.
Administrators of these facilities understand.
“We have not had any COVID deaths, but I believe some residents have died from the impact of isolation,” said Emily Birdsley, administrator at Mount Carmel Home-Keens Memorial. “Some residents with dementia weren’t able to recognize their families when they finally saw them face to face during an outdoor visit.”
Families cut off
To keep residents healthy, facilities are using isolation to protect them from COVID-19.
“This has been tough,” said Cheri Theesen, director at CountryHouse. “We focus on being a family and living life together, but COVID cuts against all that. If it had lasted only a month, it would have been easier, but it’s going on seven months. We just want to get back to doing things together and not worry about being too close to one another.”
Although three staff members at CountryHouse have tested positive for COVID-19 since March, no residents have contracted the virus. All residents were tested in May, and are tested now only if there is potential exposure. Staff members are tested every other week.
Families must sign up for once-a-week, 30-minute visits outdoors in the courtyard. When the weather gets colder, Theesen expects visits to move inside the CountryHouse conference room inside the front door.
The staff works hard to keep residents engaged, and Theesen said CountryHouse has been “overwhelmed” by outside support. Families bring meals, ice cream and other goodies for the staff members. Last Saturday, the Kearney High School band played for two hours, moving from window to window at the 31-resident facility.
First-graders at Meadowlark Elementary have written letters and drawn pictures for residents. The Sunrise Middle School band has played there as well. Hy-Vee Floral has delivered flowers that CountryHouse residents can arrange and take to their rooms.
CountryHouse is rewarding its staff, too. It is serving them a catered meal each week and relaxing the dress code. Each week, names of staff members with perfect attendance are entered in a drawing. The prize is extra paid time off.
“We have had to be creative during this time, but we will constantly work to make life meaningful,” Theesen said.
‘Stepping up to the challenge’
Shawn Leach, administrator at the three Good Samaritan Society facilities in Kearney, also praised his staff.
“We’re all working together from the administration to the front-line staff to housekeeping and laundry. We all pitch in to do whatever we have to do. There’s a lot of overtime, but the staff has stepped up to the challenge,” he said.
The Good Samaritan Society’s three facilities in Kearney are St. John’s, St. Luke’s and Prairie View Gardens. They can accommodate 56, 60 and 48 residents, respectively.
New residents are tested for COVID-19. During their first 14 days at Good Samaritan facilities, they must quarantine, and they are strictly monitored.
Leach said the staff members all wear PPE and N-95 masks “so it’s difficult to breathe, but they’re just taking good care of residents,” he said.
Leach believes residents have adjusted to wearing masks anytime they leave their rooms, as is required. Meals are served to them in their rooms, although he said the goal is to get back to communal dining.
Right now, all visitors are screened. All three facilities previously allowed indoor visitation, but when Buffalo County positivity rates for COVID-19 climbed to 14.6%, only outdoor visitation was allowed, as per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
To help residents see their loved ones, the Good Samaritan Society purchased four iPads with mobile stands for each of its three facilities.
“I have 90-year-olds using social media. At first, it’s mind-blowing for them, but they caught on, and they love it,” Leach said. “Residents can speak to their spouses on Facebook Live.”
Leach has a weekly call with the state Department of Health and Human Services. Right now, he is discussing plans with officials regarding indoor visits during the winter.
“We as a community all need to work together and take responsibility to slow the spread of COVID-19,” he said. “We have a strong leadership team that can step in and help frontline staff. I’m very appreciative. As a group, we’ve all come together to do the best we can for our residents.”
‘Pray for your nursing home’
At Mount Carmel Home-Keens Memorial, administrator Emily Birdsley is watching the elderly die of depression, not COVID-19. No indoor visitors are permitted except for “compassionate care purposes such as end of life,” she said.
Outdoor visits currently are permitted under strict surveillance, but if a staff member tests positive, that could change. “We run about 180 COVID tests each week. The staff is tested twice every week, so the likelihood of at least one person testing positive is pretty high,” she said.
Birdsley is proud of the fact that Mount Carmel Home follows all regulatory guidance and was 100% deficiency free during an infection control survey in July, but she knows that despite such restrictions, some elderly in this area still are contracting COVID-19. She talks about the screams of dementia patients as they are tested for COVID-19, dinners served on plastic foam, eating meals alone for months and not seeing loved ones.
“What these restrictions have stopped is freedom, joy, dignity, conversation, fellowship and the opportunity to make memories,” Birdsley said.
“People are dying of COVID-19 without even contracting the virus. The loneliness and isolation caused by quarantine is killing them, and I am confident that this will become much more prevalent as we hit the holiday season,” she added.
“COVID restrictions have taken a huge toll on our residents and their families. We have implemented as many interventions to combat the negative impact. But nothing beats seeing your family, or going for a drive, or feeling the embrace of a friend,” Birdsley said. “Pray for your local nursing home. They need it.”
Ann DeLaet would agree with that need for prayers. She and her husband Lynn moved 18 months ago to the Central Nebraska Veterans’ Home from Kearney.
DeLaet hadn’t had a hug from her daughter Pam Tinglehoff of Lexington in nine months until Tinglehoff accompanied her to a doctor’s appointment not long ago, but DeLaet rode to the appointment in a vets’ home van. Had her daughter taken her, DeLaet would have been quarantined for 14 days after the appointment.
When DeLaet’s sister passed away in March, DeLaet and her husband were quarantined for two weeks after the small graveside service.
“Except for that, we’ve had only window visits, and it’s been very, very rough,” DeLaet said.
Visitation rules change at the vets’ home depending on the COVID-19 situation, but when families visit, they can come into the lobby, but they’re separated from residents by a glass window.
“Off and on, we’ve been able to leave our rooms,” she said. “Right now we can go out on the patio and walk around the lake, but we couldn’t go out of our room at all part of the time.”
DeLaet is angered because the staff, as the only people who come and go from the facility, are the ones who would bring COVID-19 into the facility.
Lynn celebrated his 90th birthday in July, but there was no party. The couple celebrated their 67th wedding anniversary in March, minus family, too.
Tinglehoff said both her parents are on antidepressants now that COVID-19 invaded. “My dad is a godsend. He hates nobody, but even he isn’t talking nice about COVID-19 now. Thank goodness they have each other. I feel sorry for the people whose spouses can’t come in to see them.”
Keeping spirits high
As COVID-19 drags on, Theesen said the CountryHouse staff — kitchen, maintenance, housekeeping, office workers and caregivers — has become a creative team, arranging car parades for birthdays, visits in the garden with a just-married granddaughter, and Zoom calls to family members.
Mena-Werth acknowledges this. She said her mother “is very good-natured. She takes it as it comes. I hate not being able to see her, but I know she’s as safe as she can be.”
Karen Harmon, the life enrichment coordinator at CountryHouse, said, “We never thought we would not be able to give our loved ones hugs and kisses. We miss celebrating birthdays and weddings, but we will come through this as a community, as a family and a country. We have learned that our families are so precious, and the time we have with them is something to treasure.”
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