Punished or protected? How the pandemic has impacted Coloradans in long-term care

Coronavirus

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The pandemic has changed how people in nursing homes and long-term care facilities live their lives, cutting them off from friends and family in an attempt to keep them safe. But are the protections worth the consequences?

A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, and tomorrow is still uncertain.

“It’s the grief that we feel that what’s normal isn’t going to come back, we’re never going to have that again,” said Dr. Sheri Gibson, a geropsychologist. “What I hear from people is ‘Will I ever hug my grandchildren again? Will I ever smell my daughter’s hair?'”

Within days of the pandemic beginning, nursing homes starting shutting their doors, per a mandate from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

“We have residents who I am concerned about that may not have had a hug, or a touch, or their hand held throughout this pandemic, and we’re coming up on a year,” said Leah McMahon, Colorado State Long-Term Care Ombudsman.

It was a necessary safety measure in order to protect those most vulnerable to the virus, but it did not come without consequences.

“What we do know is that loneliness and isolation leads to poor health conditions, leads to other types of things such as depression or suicidally,” said Gibson.

Right now, life is much different in long-term care facilities than it was with visitation removed and group activities canceled.

“It is absolutely crucial that we find ways to ensure that residents can visit with their loved ones of choice, whether that’s family members, friends, they need that human connection,” said McMahon.

Advocates have been voicing their concerns about the safety measures from the beginning, but the majority of long-term care residents fall into the high-risk category, making solutions hard to come by.

“We’ve been faced now with this heart-wrenching tension between protecting older adults who are higher risk for contracting COVID-19 and dying from the disease, that tension between protecting them and then also cutting them off from the very important support systems that are not only in the community itself of long-term care, but also cutting them off from their family and friends on the outside,” said Gibson.

But where there is a will, there is a way. Many facilities came up with creative ways to create connection, from drive-by parades to a “hugger,” which is a plastic sheet that separates residents from visitors but still allows for hugging.

“It makes us feel whole,” Gibson said. “To have touch is a whole person experience.”

With around 70% of long-term care residents now vaccinated in Colorado, options for visitation are expanding, but the doors are not yet open for all.

“It’s been different all over the state as far as how facilities have handled that and how much they’ve accommodated their visitation requirements and policies and procedures around that,” said McMahon. “So it’s not everybody moving at the same pace.”

Experts say visitation needs to happen sooner than later.

“Their lives have seemed to have been put on hold, and I think that that has really compounded and exacerbated other issues that they may have been dealing with both physically and emotionally, so it is critical that we do everything we can to communicate with them and update them, so that we can give them hope that they will be able to move on with their lives as well,” said McMahon.

According to a report just released by the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, nursing homes have seen the lowest number of new COVID cases since tracking began back in May of last year, suggesting that the vaccines are working.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are also reporting an 82 percent decline in new COVID cases among residents since the peak in December, and a 63 percent reduction in COVID-related deaths.

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