Local care facilities are getting creative to allow families the visits they’ve been denied since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
WEYMOUTH – Amy Dooley, of Abington, and Cindy Walsh, of Rockland, arrived early for the long-awaited reunion with their 91-year-old mother, Evelyn MacDonald, outside The Dwyer Home. Both were excited, and a bit teary.
Walsh knew almost to the minute the last time she’d been able to hug her mother, who has dementia. It was on March 1, shortly before the state’s nursing homes were locked down due to the coronavirus.
“It has been very difficult,” Dooley said.
Now, thanks to a hugging booth built by the home’s maintenance crew, they are able to sit close to MacDonald on opposite sides of a plastic sheet, reach their arms covered with plastic sleeves through holes in the sheet, squeeze her hands and share childhood memories.
“We can actually feel you!” Walsh said. They squeezed hands and all three began singing “You Are My Sunshine.”
The spirits of John McCarthy, of Braintree, have also been lifted by hugging booth visits with his 102-year-old mother Rita McCarthy, whom he describes as “a character.” When she saw her son, she raised both hands, reached forward to clasp his and said,“I love you, I love you.”
“I love you,” he replied in a loud clear voice, adding, “Ma, hang in there!”
“It’s been very, very hard. The last time I was able to be with her physically was March 12,” he said afterward.
The booth has been approved for use during COVID-19.
Under new state health guidelines, nursing homes can again began offering expanded indoor family visits for the first time since March. Visitors and residents must wear masks, keep a physical distance of six feet and follow other precautions. The move comes at a critical time as cold weather starts to put a damper on outdoor visits.
Ken Strong, administrator of The Dwyer Home, said “Once we have the final guidance, we will notify families and set up 30-minute appointment times, with face masks, gloves, temperature checks, hand sanitation and maintaining safe distance in a segregated area to prevent cross-contamination. The visits will be monitored by a staff member.”
While no one knows what the flu season will bring during the pandemic, the power of human connections is foremost on many minds.
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“My biggest concern as we head into the fall is depression and PTSD among both the residents and my staff,” Strong said. “They have been through so much stress. It is a heavy burden to carry. I think it’s important for families to have meaningful visits with their loved ones, but I worry that opening visits during the upcoming flu season is a gamble that will increase the number of cases and testing expenses … It feels like the fox in the hen house.”
After the searing losses of last spring and early summer, nursing home staff are hopeful that significant progress has been made to establish safe settings and procedures
“It was devastating when we lost residents, but what helped me was seeing the residents who recovered,” said Stacey Healy, activities director at Queen Anne Nursing Home in Hingham.
Healy has worked in long-term care for 30 years.
“I have never seen so much strength as I saw in our residents who got better. And these are people who are 98, one 100-year-old — truly amazing,” she said.
Rose Lincoln is one of seven children of 97-year old-Rose Cundari, who lives at Queen Anne home.
“They are doing a fantastic job,” Lincoln said. “They are trying the best they can at being creative in the ways to help us see Mom.”
To her surprise, Cundari loved putting on big headphones for Zoom calls.
“She counts us all on the screen, loves it when we bring our pets into view, and asked ‘Am I paying for this call?'” Lincoln said. “I was worried, but the staff really work with us to help us.”
“We try everything we can to keep people engaged,” Strong said. “Activities are very limited because we have to keep our distance. Residents want something to do, we bring down towels and face cloths and with gloves on, they can fold them and it gives them a job, something to do.”
Strong, with 40 years experience, is hopeful because, at present, none of the Dwyer Home residents and staff have COVID-19. All federal and state health protocol are being followed. Weekly calls with the state health department keep him abreast of latest developments. Staff are tested twice a month or more if needed, and a new rapid testing machine was just received. Investments have been made in ultraviolet air filters and negative air pressure, and staff has adjusted to the use of protective equipment.
Hancock Park in Quincy has both assisted living apartments and a separate skilled nursing and rehabilitation wing.
“We are anxious about the possibility of the virus re-entering the facility,” executive director Cyril Bellavance said. “But we’ve kind of got our second wind. The staff certainly knows our residents, we have been able to do small group visits and give haircuts again, and there is hope and optimism. We are testing staff rigorously, at intervals depending on positive tests. We have more experience and clear directions from the state and federal agencies and more personal protective equipment. We definitely feel better equipped to do everything we can to keep people safe.”
One unknown that remains is what further financial aid might be coming. Dwyer Home received a recent bill of $24,000 for testing — one of several new and repeating new costs.
“Financially, we are still watching our pennies,” Strong said. “Will we get more help with grants or loans for personal protective equipment, or from the state with rates? The nursing aides are our backbone and we worry about keeping the staff and residents safe and making the payroll.”
He summed up the uncertainty: “This is no time to let our guard down. We are staying vigilant until if and when it runs its course. I’m not sure how long that will take. We have to deal with what is … a never-ending battle.”
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