Following an outbreak at a Kirkland, Washington, nursing home associated with the deaths of 25 people, retirement and care homes have been on high alert, especially since coronavirus mortality rates for the elderly are relatively high. Many are shutting their doors to outside visitors, limiting personnel, and canceling nearly all social gatherings. For nursing home residents who already struggle with loneliness, the complete ban on visits from loved ones, Saturday afternoon bingo, and religious services is a massive blow.
These bans are obviously upsetting, but know that these decisions are not being made lightly. I’m a chaplain intern at a nursing home, and while we haven’t been hit with coronavirus yet, we are preparing for the worst. And that means keeping our elderly residents healthy beyond their physical well-being. Right now, a rotation of silly jokes, as well as hand sanitizer, have become an integral part of my spiritual praxis.
Technically speaking, many nursing homes are well-equipped to handle a deadly virus. With more than 90 percent of the deaths associated with your standard seasonal flu occurring among the elderly, there are rigorous response protocols in place to contain the spread of disease. Flu shots are mandatory for all staff, there are hand sanitizer stations around every corner, and staff and volunteers with symptoms of the flu are asked to stay home. If the flu finds its way in, the infected resident and those with whom the patient has been in recent contact are isolated. After so many years of flu protocol, nursing staffs are practiced in containment.
But with the emergence of the novel coronavirus, restrictions are tightening. At the facility where I work, all staff, visitors, and volunteers are being scanned at the entrance for fevers and asked not to enter if they have symptoms such as coughing or trouble breathing, or if they (or anyone they cohabitate with) have traveled out of the country in the past two weeks. Communal worship gatherings have been canceled until further notice, and chaplains are instructed to broadcast Sunday services on closed-circuit television, available to each resident in their room. Visits from school children and other volunteer groups have been indefinitely postponed.
Social distancing is crucial at this time, but it also exacerbates a known crisis faced by all nursing homes: loneliness. It is sadly very common for patients and residents in care facilities to feel abandoned by their living relatives who, unable to provide the round-the-clock care they require, put them in homes. And it is also not unusual for residents in their 90s and beyond to have actually outlived all of their friends and relatives, including, in many instances, their own children.
Compounding this loneliness is the likelihood that spouses and children of patients won’t be allowed to visit their loved ones in the weeks to come. We’ve all seen photos on the news of people knocking on nursing home windows, trying to see their elderly family members through the glass barrier. Even within homes that offer different levels of geriatric care, spouses who regularly see their partners may not be able to visit for weeks, perhaps even months. Anyone with a heart knows how much it hurts to be kept apart from those you care about during a crisis. These will be trying times for thousands of seniors and their families.
These restrictions will also affect volunteers. Even before the pandemic, many assisted-living facilities throughout the country were suffering from a lack of those rare, kind-hearted souls who stop by for a friendly game of cards or to accompany wheelchair-bound residents on a walk outside. With the pandemic in full swing, such volunteers — many of whom are elderly themselves — are being asked to stay home.
Soon, other opportunities to gather, such as chair yoga and afternoon bingo, will also likely be canceled. During these difficult and scary times, healthcare chaplains play a critical role, providing ongoing prayer, succor, and, most importantly, friendly companionship. Chaplains like me are considered by most facilities essential personnel and will likely continue to do our work even if the home is put in lockdown. Staff will also pull double-duty, ensuring residents’ physical health and safety as well as comforting their spirits.
For those concerned about relatives living in a care facility, don’t be afraid to reach out and check in. FaceTime and Skype are great options if patients are already set up, but know that the phone is likely the best way to get in touch and still the most cherished form of communication for many elderly residents. Busy staff will have very limited time during a pandemic to train residents on how to use computers and iPads. The most trusted communication channel remains the old-fashioned landline.
During the next few weeks and months, our health care system will be fully occupied with the critical mission of keeping our seniors alive. Nursing home staff have considerable practice in safeguarding the health of seniors during an outbreak. However, there’s plenty of work left ahead for the rest of us to ensure that our nation’s elderly and most vulnerable are never left feeling abandoned.
The writer currently interns at a nursing home. They are choosing not to reveal their name to protect their privacy.