Nursing home residents stay connected with loved ones amid COVID-19

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In this Wednesday, April 1, 2020 photo, members of City Impact, a faith-based organization from Cedar Springs, sing and pray for residents and staff at Metron of Cedar Springs nursing home. (Cory Morse/The Grand Rapids Press via AP)

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has led nursing homes and assisted living centers to sequester their residents from the outside world, including family members.

These necessary separations have forced residents and their loved ones to connect in new ways while maintaining social distance. 

BYU senior Brynna Andersen is studying communication disorders. Her 70-year-old grandmother has lived in a nursing home in Arizona for about a year and is in the last stages of dementia. Before COVID-19 put strict restrictions on nursing homes, Andersen’s father, grandfather and other relatives would make weekly visits. 

“When I came home from school again, I was hoping to see her in the nursing home, but now I no longer can,” Andersen said. “My dad and grandpa aren’t allowed to visit at all, which is sad for my dad but really hard on my grandpa, who had the hardest time putting her in a home in the first place.”

Decades ago, Andersen’s grandparents met while her grandfather was serving a mission. They continued getting to know each other through LDS Institute and were married more than 50 years ago. Andersen’s grandfather has had a difficult time not being allowed to visit his wife.

“When the home said that no one was allowed to visit anymore, all of the other relatives kept back while my grandpa, who’s the most stubborn person I know, kept visiting,” Andersen said. “Given the situation, I totally get it. Imagine unwantedly placing your wife in a home and then not being able to visit her, especially when she won’t be here for much longer.”

Despite the circumstances, Andersen will continue to find a way to be involved in her grandmother’s life.

“When I get home, I’m hoping to organize a remote ‘talent show’ for the grandkids to put on for her and the other residents,” Andersen said. “Even though she may or may not understand what’s happening, it might help the grandkids at least feel like they’re still serving her.” 

Brynna Andersen’s grandparents, Patricia and Gerald Andersen, ride a horse in Dayton, Arizona, in 2017. (Brynna Andersen)

Sarah Michaelis, a manufacturing engineering student from Plano, Texas, has a 75-year-old grandmother who has lived in a nursing home down the road from her home for the last three years. 

“I’d say that our relationship is as healthy as it can be given her dementia, paranoia and schizophrenia,” Michaelis said. “She has been present for most of my life. I know that we love each other, and I do my best to be understanding and respectful despite some obvious and increasing challenges.”

Michaelis said COVID-19 has had a noticeable effect on their relationship. Her routine of visiting her grandmother a couple times a week and going on occasional outings has been put on hold. 

“Normally my family picks her up every Sunday for church, afterwards we all spend the day together. The nursing home is on lockdown now, no one is allowed in or out, so she hasn’t had the sacrament or been out for several weeks,” Michaelis said. “When my family has our own sacrament meeting, we call her up and put her on speaker so she can at least participate.”

Michaelis noticed since the mandated isolation was enforced, her grandmother’s mental health has taken a toll. 

“My grandmother doesn’t really cope well with anything, even when life is going well,” Michaelis said. “We knew she wouldn’t cope well with her lockdown, and so far her behavior hasn’t surprised us. I’d say she is coping as well as she is capable.”

Her grandmother now calls more frequently; however, this is taking a toll on their relationship.

“She calls me more frequently now, usually to tell me what I should be doing or she rambles about something she thinks happened,” Michaelis said. “I would say my end of the relationship is a little strained, and hers is probably strained for other reasons.”

Sarah Michaelis, left, with her mother Fay Michaelis, middle, and her grandmother Viola Carlson, right. (Sarah Michaelis)

Dennis Toland is one of the co-founders of BeeHive Homes, an assisted living business that franchises over 170 homes across nine states, including 50 locations in Utah. Toland said the biggest challenge with COVID-19 and nursing homes has been social distancing. 

“We’re used to having family members coming in and participating in activities with the residents,” Toland said. “Now no one can come in except for our staff and medical workers.”

The changes and restrictions have prompted BeeHive Home staff members to channel their creative energy into help residents remain connected to loved ones and stay positive despite COVID-19.

“We had a birthday party the other day for one of our residents that turned 100,” Toland said. “I don’t know how many cars went past that home and honked. She stood in the big front window and was waving at everyone.”

Staff members placed a big cake in the front yard for all the young children to grab a piece as they stopped by to greet their grandmother through the window. 

Along with birthday parties to keep them occupied, residents have also started using their lifelong sewing skills to make face masks. They made 300 in the past week alone. Toland said these efforts have had a significant impact in helping the mental health of the residents by giving them a sense of purpose. 

“They already feel ostracized because they can’t go out when they want to and they have to depend on people to come and see them,” Toland said. “But if they know they’re doing something good like this, it really helps. When you do something that helps people, it makes you feel better.”

Sissy Williams is the healthcare coordinator at Cove Point, an assisted and independent living facility in Provo. Williams agrees with Toland that it’s important to consider the mental health needs of patients by keeping them active and involved. 

The facility has encouraged residents to take walks down the long hallways, do skype calls with family members and doctors and participate in activities like bingo and join in what they’ve established as “balcony singing.”

“We’ve done balcony sing-alongs where residents come outside to sing, while a person down in the courtyard leads the music,” Williams said. “Although family members aren’t allowed in the building now, sometimes they come and talk to residents while they’re out on their balconies.”

Toland pleads with the public to continue thinking about their loved ones in nursing and assisted living centers. 

“Don’t give up on us. There’s lots that families and friends can still do, like drive-bys and leaving notes,” Toland said. “If you have a loved one in one of these facilities, make sure they’re using some form of technology to communicate with you. It really means a lot to them.”

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