Before the coronavirus pandemic swept into Connecticut, Rhonda Spellacy was accustomed to being able to stop in at the Southington Care Center to visit her mother, Donna Lane, whenever she could spare the time.
Now that guests are gradually being allowed back, Spellacy has been visiting nearly every day to make up for lost time.
“It’s been about a week and everytime I come it just gets better and better, so I see a real improvement in her condition,” Spellacy said. “She just seems happier every time, so I think it’s just added a lot to the quality of her life.”
In June, the state Department of Public Health partially lifted a ban on visitors at nursing homes, allowing guests to meet with residents so long as they remain outdoors, wear facemasks and follow social distancing guidelines. Av Harris, DPH communications director, said indoor visits are under discussion, but not currently being allowed.
As much as technology like phone and video calls has helped over the past few months, Spellacy said being able to see her mother in person has given them both something to look forward to.
“I was visiting her quite often, so once I couldn't come in for her that was quite hard for her,” she said. “ …Just to be able to see each other face-to-face again and be able to sit outside in the nice weather, it just means a lot.”
William Kowalewski, executive director at the Southington Care Center, said the center is being very cautious to follow the guidelines set by DPH and while eager to begin allowing families back inside the facility, is taking its lead from the state.
Staff have received donations of tablets to facilitate video calls, Kowalewski said, and recreation staff and social workers have been creating individualized plans to keep residents engaged and holding activities like hallway bingo. Patients who have tested negative for COVID-19 can also once again utilize the recreation room, albeit with reduced capacity to permit social distancing.
None of that can match the benefits the face-to-face meetings on the facility’s patio are having for patients.
“Obviously we can't see their smile, but to see the bright look in their eyes … has been very, very rewarding for staff because we believe the relationships we maintain with the families is as important as the relationships we maintain with our residents,” Kowalewski said.
Connecticut Long Term Care Ombudsman Mairead Painter said some families across the state have reported finding physical and cognitive changes in their loved ones when they were finally able to visit again last month.
The state requires nursing homes to retain recreation staff and social workers and in many facilities activities like hallway bingo and using technology to link residents with the outside world have helped maintain a balance between social needs and public health.
“In this time, that’s an area where we need to see additional staffing support, especially in homes that were significantly impacted by COVID,” she said.
Nursing homes and assisted living facilities have borne the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic, accounting for around 2,391 laboratory confirmed deaths out of 3,308 deaths related to the virus in the state, according to DPH data from June 10.
Though outdoor visits are going a long way to addressing the social needs of nursing home residents, Painter said they still exclude those with mobility issues who cannot get outside. Having to wear a mask, remain physically distant and tight scheduling of meetings also puts up barriers during the visits.
“I'll say we’ve had a mixed response,” she said. “Everyone is of course very happy to be able to see their loved ones, but we know there's some challenges with needing to stay 6 feet apart, being masked.”
At Elim Park Place in Cheshire, a senior living facility with residents who receive assisted living and skilled nursing care, staff have created visitation stations with plexiglass barriers for those who want a closer visit, allowing guests to get much closer.
“The most basic need for a human being is to connect … and this virus has interrupted that for all of us,” said Elim Park President Brian Bedard.
During most visits, groups are able to walk around the campus’ gardens and green areas, and some families have had birthday parties in the patios. More high-risk patients like those with skilled nursing needs are remaining in the patio areas to limit their risk.
“We’re doing as many things as we can do that are outside the box creatively,” Bedard said. “ … Going through a pandemic where the way to be safe is to isolate, how do you build that bridge?”