Contributed photo
Kathleen Williams (left), her father Richard Wojciechowski who currently lives at Madison House Nursing Home and his other daughter Susan Feaster, out on a weekly family lunch date prior to the CONVID-19 outbreak. (Contributed photo)

Under normal circumstances, nursing homes are used to an onslaught of daily visitors. However, the coronavirus pandemic has canceled those visits until further notice, causing residents and their loved ones to look for alternative ways of staying connected.

“We’ve made it work, but nothing is like actually getting a real hug from a loved one,” said Jeanette Sullivan-Martinez, president of the Statewide Coalition of Presidents of Resident Councils. Sullivan-Martinez is a resident at Pendleton Health and Rehabilitation Center in Mystic.

For Susan Feaster, whose father suffers from dementia and is a resident of Madison House in Madison, Skyping and virtual visits are not an option, so she is relying on phone calls to the facility to see how he is doing.

“He is pretty non-verbal, so a phone call is not really an option, nor is Skyping and that kind of connection,” explained Feaster. “It’s been hard because we usually visit him weekly, take him to lunch and down to the water and not being able to spend that time with him and see firsthand how he is doing has been very challenging.”

According to the AARP, more than 22,000 Connecticut residents receive care in nursing facilities throughout the state. In an effort to help those families visit with their loved ones, AARP Connecticut has been rallying the support of policymakers to implement safe ways to stay in touch.

On March 20, AARP Connecticut sent a letter to Gov. Ned Lamont and Public Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell strongly recommending modifications to the executive order banning visitors to nursing homes. For example, AARP suggested requiring nursing homes to offer and facilitate virtual video visitation, as well as other enhanced communications to prevent social isolation, reduce anxiety, and promote safety, among other benefits.

AARP Connecticut provided testimony to the Human Services Committee earlier in the legislative session strongly recommending that passive video monitoring be allowed in nursing homes. AARP Connecticut followed this with an email to every member of the General Assembly on March 23, asking that any legislative action in response to COVID-19 codify both virtual visits and passive video monitoring.

Anna Doroghazi, AARP state director of advocacy and outreach, explained that nursing home residents are allowed to use iPhones, tablets, Zoom and FaceTime, but things like “nanny-cams,” permanently installed cameras or Echo devices are not permitted. Even before the pandemic outbreak, AARP was trying to change this policy.

“From AARP’s perspective there are really two perspective points; pre-COVID-19 and how we are now,” explained Doroghazi. “Pre-COVID-19 we had already supported two bills this legislative session which would have essentially allowed nursing homes to install cameras.”

Connecticut would not be the first state to allow cameras in nursing home rooms. According to AARP, the earliest of such laws was passed in 2001 (Texas), and as of 2019, at least 13 states permit recording devices in nursing home rooms. Additional states are considering the issue in 2020.

The hope was that these cameras would help to mitigate and prevent nursing home abuse and neglect issues.

“It’s difficult for a non-verbal resident, or someone suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia to substantiate an abuse report,” said Doroghazi.

“Now with the restrictions and the executive order from the Department of Public Health basically eliminating all in-person contact, it’s more urgent than ever to allow cameras,” said Doroghazi. “We are not just asking nursing homes to allow the cameras, but also to facilitate the installation of them.”

“This virus has exposed so many vulnerabilities in nursing homes, whose population is the hardest hit by all this. This population is most at-risk for social isolation and physically they are most at-risk for getting the virus and not recovering. Now more than ever, loved ones want to be in contact with this population,” added Doroghazi.

“In my facility, the recreation staff has talked to everyone individually to see if they wanted to use Skype to stay in touch with their loved ones,” said Sullivan-Martinez. “We have been in lockdown for three weeks now and we hope it is all over soon, but the tighter we keep things now, the less likely we are going to have to deal with all this for the long term.”