Nursing home operators are grateful long-awaited COVID-19 vaccines have started to make it to their facilities.
For nearly a year, residents and families have struggled with isolation just to try to stay safe. That isolation comes with its own health consequences.
Bernie Nybakke is 88. He has been living at the Sugar Creek Alzheimer's Care Center in Normal since shortly after his wife died last May. His family, including son Terry Nybakke, talk to him every week via Zoom.
Terry Nybakke said his father has dementia. He said his father handles the technology well, but he needs frequent reminders about why his family can't come see him.
“During those times, he’s thinking life is normal and doesn’t understand (the COVID restrictions),” Nybakke said. “You have to explain it and we keep explaining it.”
Nybakke said virtual meetings are far from ideal, but it's all they have for now. So they make it work.
“It’s funny, he’s very comfortable with that,” Nybakke explained. “He can see us and we can see him, so it’s alright.”
Window visits are another way long-term care facility residents are able to talk to loved ones during the pandemic.
The family of Marguerite Eggenberg comes to see her regularly at Sugar Creek Alzheimer's Center. Eggenberg is 96. She has lived at the Alzheimer's center for a year and a half.
Granddaughters Shanna Phillips and Jamie Granschow brought their daughters to stand with them outside the facility on a recent cold winter day. The family talks to their grandmother on the phone and they see each other through the window.
“When we were able to (meet) outside, we were a lot more regular,” Granschow said. “When it’s cold, they are quick visits.”
“It’s a strain on the staff trying to get everybody corralled and to the window," Phillips added. "We try to be respectful of their schedules, but they’ve always been super accommodating."
But the women said they see the struggles other residents at the center face, waiting for loved ones who never show.
Crystal Biddle is administrator at the Alzheimer's center. She said dementia can make that sense of isolation even more troubling for her residents.
“They have dementia, so they forget or they don’t understand,” Biddle explained. “When we were trying to isolate people in our rooms, we were getting a lot of fear and agitation because they didn’t understand and they felt like we were trying to control what they were able to do and there were scared. It’s been very challenging.”
To be clear, isolation is not a new challenge for long-term care facilities. Becky Largent is a psychiatric nurse at OSF Behavioral Health in Normal. She said many nursing home residents struggled with loneliness, anxiety and depression long before the pandemic.
“Those have just multiplied exponentially since we’ve experienced COVID,” said Largent, adding she has seen those suffering from dementia have major declines in health over the last year.
She said COVID isolation has been hard on people of all age groups, but when it comes to older adults, Largent said many won't ask for help and warning signs may be harder to see.
“We might be more hesitant to ask those probing questions like, ‘Do you feel safe? Are you having thoughts of hurting yourself? Do you have a plan to end your life?’ Those are pretty hard questions to ask your grandma,” Largent said.
Largent said depression also is linked to physical health problems more likely to affect older adults. It can increase risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, dementia and thoughts of suicide.
“I believe that there is a hopelessness that comes along with loneliness that some of your residents can’t get past,” Largent said.
Largent said poor sleep and nutrition can make it worse.
Giving long-term care residents physical activity also is harder during the pandemic as facilities try to limit coronavirus spread.
Long-term care facilities have staff to plan activities for residents, but not now. Workers at these facilities had to adjust quickly when families were no longer allowed.
Doug Rutter, executive director at Luther Oaks senior living community in Bloomington, said when the pandemic hit, movie nights and game nights were out. His staff of five activity planners had to become tech wizards overnight.
“They became the lifeline,” Rutter said. “The activity staff became the conduit (for residents). They would have a full day’s worth of video chats they would be facilitating.”
Largent said socialization is critical for older adults because conversations may them help them hold onto fading memories.
Angie Baker is an advocate for long-term care facility residents though the East Central Illinois Area Agency on Aging. She said the most frequent complaint she's heard from families of nursing home residents is why can't they get to see their loved one? Baker said they have to get approval as an essential caregiver.
Baker said she sees a direct link between isolation and more COVID deaths based on the families she helps.
"A resounding yes. That absolutely must contribute to that,” Baker exclaimed. “I’m not a scientist, but I think universally we can agree – especially now after these months – that we’re social people.”
At Sugar Creek Alzheimer's Care Center, granddaughter Shanna Phillips said she's grateful that her grandmother is very sociable. She said staff assigns her daily tasks, such as folding napkins. Staff pay her in fake money but more importantly, Phillips said, staff gives her a sense of purpose.
So their grandmother is doing OK, especially since she has survived a case of COVID-19 and just got her first COVID vaccine last week.
“I think it’s probably harder on the people outside because to (her grandmother) inside, she’s living the exact same life.”
Still for many long-term care facility residents a visit from the nurse is the only human contact they may get all day.
Psychiatric nurse Becky Largent said that's quite a burden on the health care staff. She said they are the forgotten heroes of the pandemic.
Researchers at Brigham Young University produced a study in 2015 that showed loneliness and social isolation increase the risk of premature death by nearly 30%.
There's no subscription fee to listen or read our stories. Everyone can access this essential public service thanks to community support. Donate now, and help fund your public media.