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Locked Down Life Goes On For Those In Nursing Homes, Assisted Living

Alissa Eckert, Dan Higgins/CDC

Most of us are seeing a gradual reopening of our lives as COVID-19 restrictions are being eased. But for people living in nursing homes and assisted living, little has changed.

There are things we can do to help those who remain isolated with no end in sight.

A recent caller to WYPR’s Daily Dose podcast, a 77 year old woman who lives in a nursing home, laid bare her life.

“I can’t have company now which meant so much at the time,” she said.

The caller didn’t leave her name. She said she and other residents used to be able to go as a group to hear music three days a week.

“It was music that appealed to the old folks,” she said.” Can’t do that now.”

She said she does have friends who call her once in a while and send her things.

“I am very fortunate for that,” she said. “But I’m also very, very, very lonely.”

Living in a nursing home or assisted living facility can be lonely in the best of times. Katherine Hadley Cornell, the division director of psychology at Loyola Clinical Centers at Loyola University, said that social isolation can lead to depression, and the pandemic has increased that threat exponentially. Cornell said add to that the anxiety of living in a place where you are at the highest risk of contracting COVID-19.

“Typically I’m working with clients to address irrational worries,” Cornell said. “But some of the worries associated with COVID are not irrational. They’re real.”

In Maryland, more than half the deaths from COVID-19 have been in congregate facilities like nursing homes and assisted living.  A joint examination of data by the New York Times and The Baltimore Sun found that the infection rate in Maryland nursing homes is among the highest in the U.S.

The analysis covers 22 of the hardest hit states with available data, as well as the District of Columbia.

Cornell said for people in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, it’s important now for family and friends to help create a new normal.

“Really trying to connect with others,” Cornell said. “I know that can be challenging right now. Maybe it seems impossible. But certainly you can connect with people virtually through Skype or Zoom or Facetime.”

Dr. Matthew McNabney, the medical director of Johns Hopkins’ ElderPlus program, said the loneliness will build as the weeks go by. So, when you call, either virtually or by phone, stay upbeat and optimistic about the future.

McNabney said reach out to the staff as well to let them know they are appreciated. He said they, too, are under stress.

“They’re worried about the residents that they have grown attached to,” McNabney said. “They’re worried about their own health.”

McNabney said employees also worry about society’s perception of where they work and what they’re doing.

“People have been thinking that there was something done wrong in those facilities to make those high rates happen when in fact it was a combination of factors that were out of their control,” McNabney said.

McNabney said there is something positive coming out of the pandemic. People in nursing homes and assisted living are receiving more medical treatment at the facility, rather than being transferred to a hospital. McNabney said that way they avoid the risks of exposure that come with being hospitalized.

“If we can bring the care that people need in place and treat them and keep them monitored in place, whether that’s a nursing home or assisted living and do so safely that’s a good thing to do,” McNabney said.

People who live independently in senior communities also are seeing restrictions. For instance, their dining halls and libraries are closed.

Stanton Collins lives with his wife in the Broadmead community in Cockeysville. He said there’s not much to do.

“This is called a dynamic community and it is,” Collins said. “All the dynamic activities have ceased.

But things are still happening. Collins said the women who quilt made masks for the staff and for residents.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2