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Nursing homes, ‘on the front line of COVID-19,’ adjust to visitor ban

Albert Pautler

Nursing homes have shut their doors to visitors to protect residents from the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s led to questions about how families can stay in touch with their loved ones — and make sure they're getting the care they need. WBFO’s Older Adults Reporter Tom Dinki reports how the issue is playing out in Western New York nursing homes.


Albert Pautler had visited his wife Marilyn almost every day since she moved into the Elderwood nursing home in Lancaster about six months ago.

“I would try to be over and have dinner with her,” said Pautler, an 85-year-old retired University at Buffalo education professor. “We could purchase a dinner at a very reasonable rate and share dinner in the dining room.” 


Now, the married couple of 62 years instead talks on the phone three or four times a day. Last week, Pautler stood outside the nursing home window as they spoke.


“I’ve never had the opportunity to visit anyone in prison or in jail, but you see it in media how a person is behind a glass and you’re speaking and holding your hands to the glass and trying to reflect caring for that individual,” he said. “It was difficult.”


This is the new normal for nursing home residents and their families, as skilled nursing facilities nationwide began stopping visitation two weeks ago amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Gov. Andrew Cuomo mandated all 620 nursing homes in New York state ban visitors March 13. 


That’s because the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers older adults at greater risk to become seriously ill from COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus. An outbreak in a Washington state nursing home has already been linked to more than 30 deaths. 


In Western New York, a Wyoming County nursing home resident died of the virus Monday.


“Given the population that we serve, the elderly and frail, we are on the front line, quite frankly, of the COVID-19 virus,” said Stephen Hanse, president and CEO of the New York State Health Facilities Association, a trade group representing 400 nursing homes and assisted living facilities across the state. 


Banning visitors is a difficult — but necessary — step to protect residents, Hanse added.


“Those with friends or loved ones in skilled nursing facilities have to be sensitive to the fact that they may not show signs or symptoms of COVID-19, but they could in fact have COVID-19,” he said.

However, the lack of visitation is raising concerns about transparency. 


Family members are often the ones who make sure nursing home residents get the care they need, said Lindsay Heckler, an attorney with the Center for Elder Law and Justice in Buffalo and a legal liaison for the state’s nursing home ombudsman program. 


“The challenge with the visitor ban is that that double check on making sure your loved one is receiving the care and services that they need is no longer going to be there,” she said. “So if there's a concern that your loved one has been laying in bed all day and never once gets help with going to the bathroom, you're not going to be able to physically get there to advocate on behalf of your loved one.” 


Heckler noted Cuomo has asked nursing homes to set up Skype and other online communication so families can tele-visit residents, and families should make sure their loved one’s nursing home is following through. 


“If a family member wants to be able to see their loved one, a request should be made to the facility that, ‘I would like to schedule a Skype or FaceTime so I can physically see how they look and what their mannerisms are and just things of that nature,’” she said.


Pautler said a nurse has already helped him and his wife connect via FaceTime.


“We just hope and pray that they're doing everything possible for my wife as well as the other residents of the facility,” he added.


His wife’s nursing home is part of Elderwood, the largest skilled nursing chain in Western New York with 17 facilities and over 1,500 residents. 


“Communications for residents is certainly there, so there isn't anything that would inhibit a resident’s ability to seek a solution for a complaint that they have,” said Elderwood Vice President of Communications Charles Hayes.


Some families may also be concerned about a COVID-19 outbreak at their loved one’s nursing home. Some may even want to pull them out of the facility all together. 


Elderwood Chief Nursing Officer Rebecca Littler said the CDC is not recommending such actions at this time. She added nursing homes have protocol to care for COVID-19 patients while preventing its spread.


“If we have a suspected case that is suspected that person would be evaluated and deemed whether or not we can care for them within the facility,” she said. “Obviously, we would isolate them into their room, use protective equipment while caring for them until their symptoms resolved.”


Pautler said he’d prefer to have his wife home, especially now, but that the nursing home is the best option right now. She’s there mostly for rehabilitation after taking some bad falls.


“So we have to be realistic and she is getting the proper care that she needs at this time,” he said.

But not being able to see her has been difficult.


“The uncertainty of just having a loved one in a nursing home is one thing. The uncertainty now of having a loved one in a nursing facility and then not being able to visit is another thing,” he said “It's on your mind almost constantly.


“And especially if it goes on for a long period of time,” he added, “it'll be so welcoming when it's over.”


Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.