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A Michigan man got a part-time job at his wife's nursing home after the facility stopped allowing visitors during the coronavirus pandemic. The state is one of 20 where long-term care facilities remain on total lockdown.
In 62 years of marriage, Larry and Carol Burnett had never been apart for more than a week. Even after Carol, 83, moved into a full-time nursing facility, Larry saw her every day, arriving by 8 a.m. and typically spending nearly 12 hours by her side before going home for the night.
And then Covid-19 hit their home state of Michigan. In March, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer placed the state’s long-term care facilities on lockdown, prohibiting visitors who “are not necessary for medical care, support of activities of daily living like bathing or eating, or that are not visiting under exigent circumstances.” The executive order included Regency on the Lake, the eastern Michigan nursing home where Carol has lived since 2018. And that meant that Larry, 80, could no longer step inside.
“It is a 100% lockdown,” said Sandra Ball, the facility’s activities director. “No family members can come in and no residents can go out. And that’s hard and emotional for our residents and for their relatives.”
Stripped of his daily routine and his in-person contact with his wife, Larry “mostly stayed home,” he said. “I tried to video chat with her one time, but she didn’t like that. We did a couple window visits, where I would stand outside her room, and she wasn’t really happy with that, but she did do them. But, mostly, we did telephone calls, three times a day. It wasn’t the same, though. Not even close.”
As weeks turned into months, both Larry and Carol grew despondent.
“When it happened, and he couldn’t come anymore, he would call and talk to us and you could hear his depression,” Ball said. “You could see his wife’s depression.”
And then in June, Ball had a thought. Regency on the Lake was looking to hire a part-time aide to help coordinate activities for residents. The job had been posted online for three weeks, but no one had applied. And Larry, who spent all of his free time at the facility before the pandemic, was already familiar with the activities program.
“He was our volunteer of the year here in 2018, and he’s always pitched in and helped,” she said. “He was here every day, morning until night, and did things with us. He already knew the job.”
So she called and offered him the gig. He’d have access to the facility, but only during specific hours on certain days of the week. His hiring would be contingent on the results of a physical and some medical tests. If he passed, Larry would have to wear a medical-grade mask to work and submit to the same weekly Covid-19 tests that the full-time employees undergo.
“I said, ‘When do I start?’” Larry said.
He began work four weeks ago, reuniting with his wife for the first time since March. On duty, he cooks for residents, plays music and organizes outdoor time, but spends his 30-minute lunch break—and some extra time each morning and evening—with Carol.
“She hadn’t hardly been out of her room since the Covid thing started, and she’s coming out now,” he said. "It’s not the same as before because I have to wear a mask and I’m supposed to keep my distance, and that’s hard. But, before, we were both worried that one of us would die without being able to see each other again. And we feel much better now.”
However, the rest of the facility’s residents remain isolated from their friends and family members. Whitmer last month extended her executive order to keep care facilities on lockdown through Aug. 31, a step she said was necessary to protect elderly people, who have a greater risk of becoming seriously ill and developing complications from Covid-19.
“This executive order protects more long-term care facility residents and staff, including the most vulnerable residents in our nursing homes,” Whitmer said in a statement that acknowledged the difficulties associated with the ongoing isolation. “I know seniors and their families are making sacrifices every day during this crisis.”
The danger associated with coronavirus spreading in a nursing home is substantial. A New York Times analysis found that at least 62,000 people who died of the respiratory illness were either residents or workers at homes or other facilities. That death toll amounted to 41% of all deaths as of July 30.
But as concerns about the mental health impacts of isolation on home residents have grown, some states have loosened visiting restrictions, at least a little. As of July 15, 30 states had allowed visitors back into long-term care facilities, though most of them—26—were permitting outdoor visits only, according to an analysis of state-level plans. Michigan is one of the 20 states where care facilities remain on total lockdown, leaving residents with few options for contact. None of them are ideal, Ball said.
“Talking through a closed window when you have hearing problems doesn’t work that well. On video calls, you’re only seeing people from their face up,” she said. “Some of our residents are starting to forget who their family members are. One woman has a son who calls, and she says to him, ‘I’m not your mom.’ She didn’t do that before this happened. It’s emotional to watch.”
Outdoor visits, with proper social distancing and mask policies, could help, Larry said.
“There would be no touching, but at least you’d be able to see each other in person,” he said. “It makes a big difference between telephone calls and being able to see somebody in person and visit with them and talk to them.”
Whitmer’s office did not respond to a request for comment, and it’s unclear if, or when, the state might loosen restrictions to allow outdoor interactions in long-term care facilities. But it would need to happen soon, Ball said, because cold weather comes early in Michigan.
“They need to be able to see each other, even if it’s outside for the next two months before we’re on lockdown for the winter,” she said. “Something has to give for these families to be able to see each other. There’s got to be a safe way to do it.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.
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