Covid-19 Can’t Keep Some Older Couples Apart—Even In Care Homes

Retirement

You can’t visit, the signs say. Early in this pandemic, The American Health Care Association recommended that care facilities prohibit visits from families of those in care homes for elders. Many painful reports of separation of seniors from loved ones tell us that isolation has a high emotional price. But you just can’t make mandatory separation an obstacle for some spouses. They find ways around it, even at great sacrifice.

Those who can, call their loved ones every day. NBC News reported a couple’s story in which one wife could not see her husband of 58 years, and he could not even hold the phone by himself, due to Parkinson’s disease. When available an aide holds the phone to his ear, the report describes. Video calls would confuse him. His wife likes to hear her husband’s voice. That is all she has of contact with the man she loves so much. She tries to have hope that she will see him again soon. He is described as being unable to understand why she doesn’t visit.

Others have gone to greater lengths to avoid complete separation. A report from Souixland News, Onawa, Iowa describes how an 88 year old woman with advanced dementia in a care center didn’t always even recognize her husband when he visited before the pandemic. He would come every day anyway and stay with her from morning until bedtime. He cared for her daily needs along with staff there, until quarantine isolated him from his wife completely. The amazing staff at Elmwood Care Centre offered him a chance to stay at the facility, in a room at no charge, so he could see his wife 24/7. He took them up on the offer and moved in. The report states that the couple celebrated their 71st wedding anniversary there, complete with a party and a cake.

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And then there’s the remarkable tale of Mary Daniel, 57, reported in the Washington Post. Mary used to visit her husband Steve, 66, every day at the memory care facility where he was doing well, even with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. That was before the pandemic. Then a state order, reflective of what is going on in most states, barred further visits. She hadn’t even had a chance to say goodbye before learning that she could not see him. Visiting him at his window left him in tears, and that did neither of them any good. Mary tried various ways to get inside without success. She started a Facebook group, “Caregivers for Compromise—because isolation kills too!” It was flooded with thousands of stories from others forced to separate from loved ones in care homes. The facility’s management came up with a creative idea: they offered her a part time job at the facility. Mary had to interview, get background checked, and get video training to become a dishwasher there. She took the job, which involved scrubbing, mopping and washing.

She doesn’t mind. Twice a week, after her shift, she goes right to Steve’s room and spends time with him, and they lie in bed together for a few hours until he falls asleep. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than the 144 days of separation they both suffered.

These stories are a tiny snapshot of how the pandemic is forcing people apart when they want to be together, Not everyone can move into the care home where a loved one stays. Not everyone wants to or is capable of doing the physical work in a care home part time just to be able to see their loved one regularly in person. For all those suffering the loss of in-person contact, my heart goes out to you. I have worked in care facilities as a nurse and I have seen the devastation of loneliness in those places long before Covid-19 exacerbated an already difficult situation. Now it is so much worse. But the alternative, to allow anyone to visit, is ever more terrifying. A family member without any symptoms of this tragic airborne disease can bring it into a care home without knowing it. The disease among the most vulnerable, those in care homes, spreads at a shocking rate, with fatalities far greater than in the general population. Separation is extremely painful. Loneliness brings its own damage to the spirit. At least, however, free from Covid-19 exposure, the residents in senior homes can survive. We can all hope that when a safe vaccine becomes available, that residents and caregivers in senior homes will be among the very first to be able to receive it. That could end the nightmare of separation of aging parents from their families and spouses from one another. That is my own hope for our vulnerable seniors.

In my work at AgingParents.com, clients ask about moving a loved one into memory care or assisted living. The aging loved one is struggling at home and needs more help. They’ve lost independence. I advise them to consider home care for now, until the pandemic much more under control. The more ideal place, a community with social activities and the possibility of new friendships is just not a safe bet right now.

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