Keeping Tabs on Loved Ones in Nursing Homes During the COVID-19 Outbreak

As we enter an unprecedented global pandemic, we will have to make many adjustments to our everyday routines: limiting social gatherings, working from home, and for many, finding new ways to connect with family members residing in nursing facilities.

Many nursing facilities, whose populations fall under the CDC’s “high risk” category, have taken the precautionary step to limit visitors. Unless a patient is near death, facilities are generally denying access to loved ones in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But family members, friends, and other visitors often provide vital support to patients in nursing homes, whether it is assistance with feeding, dressing, and toileting, or companionship and connection to the outside world. These patients are also at high risk for depression and feelings of isolation, so loved ones may be seeking ways to maintain some sense of normalcy while protecting those most at risk of infection.

One way to keep in touch with family members in nursing homes is via Skype, FaceTime, or another video chat platform. These tools can help mimic in-person contact, although it does not allow you to provide the assistance with care that your loved one may require. To fill this gap, it may be helpful to the facility (and comforting for you and your loved one) to write up a summary of needs and preferences. In an ideal world, you would be able to help execute the tasks necessary for your loved one’s care. That being said, we are facing an evolving and escalating public health crisis. In the coming days, weeks, and months, as we work to give health care workers the time and resources needed to resolve this crisis, a summary of needs may help bring the care a facility can provide closer to that ideal.

To supplement video chat options, you may also choose to compile videos of familiar people and settings for viewing by your loved one. You might include old footage of family events and gatherings, a slideshow of favorite hometown spots, or a montage of messages from family members, neighbors, and friends. Even in today’s world, we have limited time; we cannot be in constant contact with our loved ones. This idea can help you bring some of the outside world to them, even when time is limited. DropBox, Google Photos, Amazon Prime Photos, and more are easily accessible online tools which can be used to upload any videos you may wish to share with your loved one. Contact your loved one’s nursing home to find out what their preferred method would be.

There are, of course, more “old-school” methods of staying in contact with someone in a nursing home. The easiest is probably making a daily phone call to check in. As always, speak with the staff at the facility on a regular basis to get status updates. In my experience, it is best to ask for the nurse’s station when you call a nursing facility. The nursing staff has much less turnover than the social work offices tend to. When you speak to staff or to your loved ones, find out if there is anything you can provide from the outside world. You can put favorite snacks, movies, books, etc. into a care package for your loved one. Beyond that, younger members of your family might enjoy making crafts and writing messages to be displayed in your loved one’s room. You can send pictures for staff at the facility to hang in the room, too. In some cases, writing a letter could give your loved one a much-needed account of life outside the nursing home. Remember: your loved one is likely concerned for you, too! Frequent communication will help ease your mind and that of your loved one.

The current COVID-19 outbreak is forcing us to get creative. As you can see, though, there are many ways to keep in touch with your loved one, even when they are in a nursing home that does not allow visitors. It is important to remember that these precautions are in place to protect your family member from a very serious, potentially harmful illness. The best thing we all can do right now is practice social distancing as recommended by the CDC, follow state and federal guidelines to prevent spread of the virus, and use common sense. The sooner we can mitigate the spread of this virus, the sooner we can visit our loved ones again. In the meantime, it is my hope that the above techniques will bring you and your loved one as close to your normal visiting schedule as possible while bringing you some peace of mind.

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