Nursing Homes and the Coronavirus

Does anyone else wake up every morning and think they’ve had a nightmare based on some odd sci fi movie they once saw…and then realize it’s real?

I don’t know where to begin.

First of all, I’m not in nursing homes, memory care centers, or adult day centers lately. I’m a gerontologist who is avoiding older adults like the plague. Except they aren’t the plague. I am potentially the plague.

To be clear, I have no indication that I have COVID-19. I feel fine. I have no symptoms. But I can’t rule out that I’ve contracted it and am not yet showing symptoms. None of us can….

I would be devastated if I transmitted COVID-19 to someone who health was vulnerable due to age and chronic illness.

I am not scared of getting COVID-19. In the framework of our society, no one really cares if I get COVID-19. However, I am terrified to transmitting COVID-19 to someone who might die from it or even need our limited medical resources. And if I don’t get it, I can’t transmit. Therefore, my goal is to avoid the virus. It should be your goal as well, no matter your health status.

Although I’m not at nursing homes or other senior living environments, I’m hearing from employees and families…and even some residents…and what I’m hearing makes me sad. It’s not just the coronavirus. It’s the (necessary and important) precautions we are taking due to the coronavirus. The sacrifices we are asking people to make are excruciating.

I’ve heard from a family who worried that their mom’s nursing home would shut down to visitors (which it eventually did) and decided the best decision was to bring their mom home during this time. Their mom, who has Alzheimer’s, had more extensive care needs than they realized. They realized they couldn’t provide her adequate care at home and drove her back to the nursing home. They weren’t even let in the building to get her settled. They sat in the parking lot and cried. They don’t know when they’ll see her again.

A current Gerontology student at the university where I teach works as a nursing assistant at a local nursing home. When the nursing home decided to ban visitors to protect residents, a family member called the facility and told my student (who is, by the way, 19 years old) that she and the other employees are cruel and heartless for keeping residents from their loved ones. I get it…it’s hard…but we’re all in this together. And strictly limiting visitors is absolutely the right decision. Please don’t be angry at nursing home employees. Many are staying extra hours during this time.

I have alumni working as nursing home administrators. They are telling me how nothing has prepared them to make the decisions they’ve had to make in the last few weeks. They are telling staff to stay home if they have symptoms, but they worry about having enough staff to take care of residents. They understand the social needs of their residents, but they’ve had to stop group activities and cease congregate meals.

They have residents with dementia who don’t understand or forget why their families can’t visit. They have residents who watch the news all day long—and are terrified that the virus will infect their nursing home and they will die.

I know a few technology-savvy nursing homes who have set up Facetime and Zoom visits with families. However, I know some people with dementia will be confused or even agitated by virtual visits. And not all families are able to take advantages of these services due to lack of internet service.

A friend who works in a nursing home has told me how scared some of their residents with dementia are when staff must wear a mask. If you struggle to recognize people under normal circumstances, imagine how hard it might be when they show up in a mask.

I got a message this week from a woman whose mother has younger-onset Alzheimer’s. Her mother is progressing quickly. One day she could brush her teeth; the next day she couldn’t. She struggles to remember her daughter. Her daughter knows that by the time she is able to get back into the nursing home her mother will likely have forgotten her name. She’s unsure of the other changes that will happen during the separation and is bracing herself for the version of her mother she will meet when she returns.

An older man sent me a message about his wife, who lives with dementia in a memory care community. He usually spends most of the day with her, and he is there to assist her in eating her meals. He was told this week that he wouldn’t be able to visit for an indefinite period of time. He told an employee that if his wife won’t eat, it helps to sing to her, particularly “You Are My Sunshine.” Oh, my heart.

I know someone who works as an activity director at a nursing home. She coordinates a Sunday church service in their chapel. Pastors in their community rotate in preaching the service. She left some messages for the pastor who was supposed to preach last Sunday to tell him not to come. He showed up anyway because, “God will keep us safe.” He was not allowed in the building.

I’m sad for those who will be fighting for their lives because of coronavirus, but I know that our important precautionary measures will cause individuals and families significant pain and trauma that isn’t physical. There’s no way around this.

If you have any experiences related to nursing homes and coronavirus, I want to hear about them. Please comment below. I don’t have any answers, but I want to know what this is like for those of you directly impacted.

I’ll have time to read all of them. After all, I’ll just be sitting here at home. Trying not to get COVID-19.