For many people, the holiday season is a time filled with joy and gathering with loved ones. Now more than ever people look forward to what the new year may bring and to bidding a (not so fond) farewell to 2020. But for many families, the challenge and difficulty of safely visiting with loved ones who live in assisted living facilities continue. How can families stay connected to one another during this time and encourage togetherness while also keeping loved ones healthy and safe?
Lisa Newcomb is the Executive Director of the Empire State Association of Assisted Living (ESAAL) and the organization represents over 300 of the 545 licensed assisted living communities in New York State. The ESAAL advocates for these communities through legislation and providing education for member administrators, directors and other management personnel. Speaking with Newcomb one gains a sense of what life has been like for residents of assisted living facilities during the pandemic as well as the steps being taken now to regain some sense of normalcy for senior residents and their families, especially as the holiday season approaches.
As Newcomb states, it has been a rough road for everyone involved from the beginning of the pandemic when there was a major lack of PPE available and a struggle to get supplies.
“One death is too many, so getting PPE is critical to any ongoing on-site visitation,” said Newcomb. As infection rates decreased, visits began to resume but, as she says, it can still be a hardship for many. “It’s taking a toll on residents and family members too. The staff are doing their best to fill in for family members,” she said, adding that no one can take the place of your own child.
Assisted living residences are known as being very social places. Many residents are mobile, active, and like to socialize with one another, with their family and friends, as well as take trips out of the facility. By July, visitation was allowed with rules in place. If anyone tested positive for Covid-19, visitation was shut down for 28 days. By September, the rule changed to a 14-day shutdown, and this has had some positive impact on visitation rates. Residents are encouraged to conduct visits outside with some circumstances allowing for indoor visits in a well-ventilated room with supervised social distancing.
As the weather gets colder, it may become increasingly harder to visit with loved ones in-person if the rules stay as they are. Fortunately, there are other ways families can keep connected. Staff can facilitate virtual visits (such as FaceTime) with residents and family–seniors who are grandparents especially love to see the faces of and talk to their grandchildren. But nothing can fully take the place of an in-person visit especially for residents who have dementia and trouble comprehending; they may feel abandoned or forgotten by family.
There are clever ways some assisted living facilities are handling holiday visits. One facility rented a construction trailer for the next six months: it is heated, big enough for one to two visits at a time and is ADA compliant. Seeing family in-person can be the one bright spot in a resident’s day. Newcomb said she is hopeful small gatherings for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hanukah will be allowed so long as there are no cases of Covid-19. In the past, holiday gatherings have taken place in the dining room with visits from community and family members.
“The rates are so low, so hopefully clusters can be controlled quickly and stopped. It has an emotional impact on the elderly–assisted living is the place to be doing things.” Residents want to get out, visit with loved ones and do activities together. “Seniors move into assisted living to live–not to be confined to their room or apartment without visitors. Activities can be done safely keeping in mind that our residents’ mental health well-being is as important as their physical health.”
As the holidays approach, let’s all remember those in assisted living, and hope they are allowed the dignity of a visit with their loved ones this season.