A ‘common sense’ call for nursing home visitations

Gone, not forgotten: Jim Bardong at his 91st birthday celebration in March.

We buried my 91-year-old father-in-law on Aug. 21 at St. Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale, one day after his wake, where most of his family saw him for the first time in five-and-a-half months.

Because he was in an assisted-living facility, a hospital and a nursing home during that time, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented him from receiving visitors. He survived COVID-19, but spent the final 161 days of his life in isolation, with no family support, as his health dramatically deteriorated.

A retired New York City firefighter who spent countless hours in a Brooklyn firehouse from the 1960s until his 1989 retirement, an original member of the Bay Shore YMCA, Jim was a gregarious man who loved to talk. In the past couple of years, Alzheimer’s disease took hold of his brain and you’d be lucky to have a conversation with him at all.

But he still recognized family members, even while slipping fast, both mentally and physically. I last saw Jim at a birthday lunch on March 1. For an hour, he was lucid and somewhat engaged in conversation. He ate heartily. Less than two weeks later, on March 13, the state mandated that nursing homes ban visitors, due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Like most, Jim’s assisted-living facility arranged for family members to connect with loved ones through video chats, but Jim never liked talking on the phone, never mind an iPad. As the pandemic dragged on, he wanted nothing to do with “virtual visits” and he rarely answered his phone.

Terry Lynam: Vulnerable seniors deserve better.

His rapid decline over the ensuing months was witnessed only by staff, who would give vague (and often misleadingly positive) assessments of his condition. During one conversation in early July with his social worker, my wife was told her father was riding a stationary bike – something he hadn’t done in years.

A few weeks later, on July 31, she got a chance to see him, riding with Jim in an ambulance as he was transferred from a nursing home (where he was undergoing rehab) to an assisted-living facility. He was noncommunicative and confused and gave no indication that he recognized his daughter or understood anything she was saying.

Two weeks later, his organs started shutting down. He was dead within 24 hours.

A stationary bike? Pure BS.

Throughout the entire ordeal, the family’s biggest fear was that my father-in-law, “Pop” to 10 grandchildren, would believe that he’d been abandoned and left to spend his remaining days in isolation. Despite alleged assurances from staff that they had explained to him what was happening with the virus and the quarantines, the family’s inability to communicate and try to explain the mind-boggling realities of COVID-19 to a 91-year-old Alzheimer’s patient caused agonizing guilt and grief.

Seniors living in New York’s nursing homes and assisted-living facilities have paid a double penalty during the coronavirus pandemic. Statistically, they are the most vulnerable to COVID-19 – some 6,400 statewide nursing home patients have died from the virus – but we have largely ignored the health consequences of loneliness and seclusion.

On July 10, the state Department of Health began allowing visitors back into nursing homes, with a few big catches: If a staff member or resident tests positive for COVID-19, a nursing home must ban visitors for 28 days. The clock restarts with every positive case. And only one out of 10 residents can have visitors on any given day.

As a result of these rules, which are more stringent than what the federal government recommends, the majority of New York’s nursing homes and assisted-living facilities have remained closed to visitors.

While I certainly recognize the reason for caution, the state needs to adopt common-sense visitation guidelines that will restore communication with loved ones while still protecting residents and staff. For instance, as is done in other states, New York could allow outdoor visitations, with guests wearing masks, practicing social distancing, filling out self-health questionnaires, undergoing temperature checks and limiting the length of their visits.

As evidenced by my father-in-law’s experience, far too many seniors are dodging the virus, only to be devestated by state mandates. And their families, too.

Terry Lynam is a former senior vice president and chief public relations officer for Northwell Health, New York State’s largest healthcare provider and private employer.