Following a debilitating stroke that wiped most of her memory making it unsafe for her to live alone, Faye Seal was placed into a nursing home in 2019.
Many see nursing facilities as a last resort for their loved one’s safety. And while nursing homes have statistically been found to shorten resident’s lifespans, they act as a safe haven from the dangers seniors may face living on their own.
But nursing homes have become ground zero for the COVID-19 pandemic in America, with more than 40% of COVID-related deaths connected to nursing care staff and residents.
“When COVID broke out, you know that was pretty much the beginning of the end for her,” said Douglas Seal, her youngest son.
Experts attribute this to residents having weakened immune systems and many underlying health conditions. Which are then compromised by close interactions between staff members and outside visitors who bring the virus into the facilities.
Protective measures in nursing homes have been implemented to protect residents from exposure between each other and non-essential staff, including physical therapists and those who lead recreational activities.
Unfortunately, the very guidelines that have been put in place to protect the most vulnerable have backfired, causing significant mental and physical declines.
As a result of minimal manpower and staff being stretched thin, residents have been isolated to their rooms with little to no interaction, prompting new health concerns.
“It’s really hard for the residents,” said Aleida Alonso, the Community Director of Wellness Care Center in Ojai, California. “Especially the ones that are aware, and even the ones that are not aware. It’s hard because they don’t have the human touch and their loved ones’ love.”
The isolation caused Faye to decline mentally, and she hardly recognized Seal when he visited. And a lack of physical therapy and being restricted to her bed caused her to develop bedsores.
She is remembered by Seal as a strong woman who had still been mowing the grass and hauling debris on her 15-acre plot of land in Mississippi, even after two heart attacks and two bypass surgeries.
The maintenance of the property was slowly killing her. But with the passing of her eldest son in 2005 and her husband in 2007, both on the grounds of the house, she felt too strong of an emotional attachment to leave.
After her stroke she no longer was able to remember the worries that had once plagued her mind, Faye was finally at peace.
“It was a blessing in disguise that she had this stroke,” said Seal. “She didn’t remember anything, but she didn’t worry about anything. She was happy, she was content.”
Faye passed away in May from heart disease. But due to COVID restrictions, Seal was unable to be with her during her final days.
“It was tough because you can’t go see them. That was a loss, you know just not being able to say goodbye,” said Seal.
Just as people are passing alone in hospitals, so are those on hospice care.
This has been the sad reality for many with loved ones who have passed during high spikes in COVID cases.
Yet, as cases began to lower during the mid-summer months, families were slowly allowed to make in-person visits. Albeit, they were then reduced to visits with glass and fence barriers still separating them from their loved one’s touch.
“It felt like I was visiting animals in a zoo,” said Emili Gross, whose parents both reside in a memory care facility in Arizona. “It was weird. We were just looking at each other.”
With the number of COVID cases now surging throughout the country, many nursing homes have had to once again shut their doors to in-person visits and limit contact between the staff and residents.
“We do our best as caregivers, but it’s not the same,” said Alonso.
Wellness Care Center had to significantly shift its routines for all. When residents were isolated, staff put radios inside their rooms to play familiar tunes. They also put on puppet shows to increase distanced interaction.
“We just have to do what we have to do in order to keep things as safe as possible,” said George Paniagua, a medication technician at Wellness Care Center.
Many care facilities have supplemented in-person visits with video chats. However, with limited iPads and other technological resources, it makes it much harder to schedule virtual visits.
And many residents, especially those far progressed in their disease, find their attention spans tested tremendously.
The numerous challenges presented by these restrictions have forced families and staff to adjust and reconcile with the sacrifices.
“It was tough, it was different. I never thought I was going to go through something like this. It’s always a learning experience. You just learn and get ready for whatever might happen,” said Paniagua.
He explained that although most of the residents do not understand what is going on, those who are high functioning have been fearful and questioned why the staff has been wearing facemasks. They were scared it was something really serious.
“I was scared, everyone was scared, but we knew we had to be calm in order for our residents to be at peace and calm,” said Paniagua.
And as the pandemic rages on, staff and family have had to accept things as they come to find comfort in a horrible situation.
While Gross is still limited to visiting her parents through glass barriers, she has found herself questioning the future of her parents and whether a future still remains.
“It hit me a little harder just because I’m like is this how we’re going to end this?” said Gross.
“They’re in their last chapter. Is this the last time I’m going to see them and how I’m going to see them?”