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Families Fear Nursing Home Residents Will Face Two Crises: The Coronavirus And Loneliness

David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
Katie Morrison (left) and Diana Morrison meet their grandfather/father at Bethesda Southgate during one of their window visits.

Diana Morrison remembers celebrating her father’s 85th birthday with the entire family in February. They gathered in a conference room at Bethesda Southgate, a nursing facility in south St. Louis County, with food and drinks, eager to celebrate.

It was the family's last gathering before the coronavirus pandemic with her father, who has lived at Bethesda Southgate for nearly three years.

“It's kind of a whole new normal for me, because I was used to going in every day, everything I did was kind of around when I was going to go visit Dad,” said Morrison, whose father had a stroke 20 years ago. “He kind of understands, he kind of gets why we can't come.”

The pandemic has made it hard for families to visit their loved ones in nursing and assisted living homes.

After many people in nursing homes tested positive for the virus earlier this year, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services instructed long-term care facilities to limit visitors and nonessential health care staff across the region. In June, state health officials said nursing homes could again allow visitors to see family members.

Morrison said she’s frustrated that people aren’t taking the virus seriously and wearing masks, which has left the most vulnerable residents facing two crises: the coronavirus and loneliness.

“I understand why it's happening, but I am shocked that it's still going on,” Morrison said. “I feel like all these years and the last seven months have just been so depressing for him.”

An October survey by the nonprofit Altarum Institute found that only 5% of nursing home residents had visitors three or more times per week. Before the pandemic, more than 50% did. Three-quarters of respondents also said they’ve felt more lonely during the pandemic.

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Mark Schoon
Mark Schoon (left) and his father, Paul Schoon, celebrate a night out at Ted Drewes in June 2019. Mark said the pandemic has left his father feeling isolated.

But loved ones had to stay outside and follow social distancing guidelines to keep residents safe.

University City resident Mark Schoon said the new guidelines were a relief. His dad was moved from his independent living facility on Delmar after the isolation left him depressed and sad.

“At first it was OK, but after two or three months I think the solitary nature of it all started getting to people, in him especially,” Schoon said. “[He] started to lose interest in getting up, in eating, in doing the normal things people would do.”

After Schoon's father stopped eating, he was admitted to a hospital and later to a rehab facility. Schoon said his father will soon be admitted into an assisted living facility now that he’s doing better. He’s also been able to visit his dad during scheduled patio and window visits where the two can be in the same place together. But Schoon and others worry about what will happen as the weather gets too cold for outdoor visits.

Katie Flaschar moved her grandparents to the assisted living section of Meramec Bluffs in 2018 after both were diagnosed with dementia. Flaschar said she’s visited them over the summer, but she’s not sure what’s going to happen in coming months.

“How much longer will I get these visits?” Flaschar asked. “Yes, I'm grateful that they're willing to do these Skype calls, but again, when you have two older people who can barely hear, it's not super productive.”

Nursing homes across the country are trying to figure out what to do during the next several months. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that the coronavirus spreads more indoors.

Bethesda Southgate officials said the pandemic has led them to establish window and patio visits for guests and residents, but when it comes to what happens next, they’re urging people in St. Louis and St. Louis County to comply with public health recommendations that mandate social distancing and masking.

“Even one test, one positive test in a nursing home within a 14-day period constitutes an outbreak, and therefore you are not allowed to conduct indoor visits.” said Jennifer Popp, the administrator at Bethesda Southgate.

Southgate was able to offer socially distant indoor visits last month, but a positive case led the facility to put the visits on hold, Popp said.

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Cheryl Kinney
Cheryl Kinney (right) and her father participated in an Alzheimer's walk last year. She said her dad's own diagnoses help inspire her to work as a counselor for other elderly people who feel isolated from the pandemic.

“We're at the mercy of the people in our county to do their best to stay safe and wear their masks and not congregate,” said Tara Powell, activities director at Southgate. “We have a good system for when we can do indoor visits, and we were able to do them for about a week, maybe a week and a half, where we can bring in five or six people at a time at a socially distant range and they're visiting with their loved ones.”

Cheryl Kinney is a counselor who primarily works with older adults. Her father has Alzheimer's disease and lives at Meramec Bluffs. His situation inspired her to want to help other residents. She often goes to nursing homes to speak with residents who are having a rough time.

“You try to work with the person's strengths, and how have they coped in the past when they've encountered challenging times, and you try to use that as a resource, to help them through the challenge that they're going through now,” Kinney said.

Many families say caregivers help them use Zoom or FaceTime to talk to their adult children and grandchildren. While some say it’s not the same as seeing them in person, it’s better than nothing.

Diana Morrison wonders how her father and other people in nursing homes will make it through the holiday season when they can’t celebrate with families. She’s been able to see her dad during patio visits, but she knows other residents have had few visits. So she’s trying to help the best she can.

“My sister that passed away was a card maker, I have gobs of cards,” Morrison said. “So I recently colored a bunch of postcards, I wrote a bunch of Halloween cards, took it to the nursing home, and told the activity staff to hand it out to people that don't get mail.”

It’s just one way Morrison tries to bring a sense of normalcy during a very abnormal year.

Follow Chad on Twitter @iamcdavis

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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