March 12 was the last time Kim Dungey could hug her 85-year-old mother.
She and her father, Bud Peck, saw her mother, Ann Peck, in The Commons on St. Anthony that day. The COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning to spread across New York, so the Auburn nursing home was limiting visits to its lobby area. The scene was chaotic, Dungey said. Bud suggested putting off their visit until the next day. But she had a feeling they should go while they still could.
She was right. The next day, the state Department of Health banned visits at nursing homes due to the pandemic.
For six months, now, the closest Dungey has been able to get to her mother has been a window on The Commons' first floor.
They stand on opposite sides and talk by phone during these "window visits." But they're not very satisfying, Dungey said. Her father's hard of hearing, and one time, they had to communicate with Ann over a medical transport van idling nearby, as well as a maintenance worker using a leaf-blower. Thankfully, Dungey continued, a Commons staff member asked the worker to move.
There's also FaceTime, which the facility's staff helps Ann use on an iPad, or the old-fashioned phone call. But for Dungey, none of those compare to seeing her mother face-to-face.
And she worries how the separation is affecting Ann, who has dementia.
"Every time we have a window visit, it starts with crying and ends with crying," Dungey told The Citizen. "It's just really difficult for her to figure out why this is happening."
Dungey isn't alone in her worry. For months, relatives of nursing home residents across the state have been petitioning the government to change its guidance on nursing home visitation. The New York State Health Facilities Association and New York State Center for Assisted Living said face-to-face visits are "essential for the health and well-being of our residents and their families and loved ones." On Saturday, advocacy project EssentialCareVisitor.com held a rally in front of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's New York City office, and called the guidance "tragic."
Though the state has been changing that guidance, it hasn't done as much as Dungey and others believe necessary.
On July 10, the state Department of Health lifted its ban on visits, but only at long-term care facilities that haven't had a positive COVID-19 test for the previous 28 days, the window recommended by the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. On Wednesday, the state shortened that window to 14 days for assisted living facilities and pediatric nursing homes, but not for nursing homes with elderly residents.
That includes skilled nursing facilities like The Commons where the window remains 28 days. But most of the 613 nursing homes in New York haven't been able to go that long without a resident or staff member testing positive. A Health Facilities Association survey found that 77% of them have not been able to allow visits again since July.
Even in Cayuga County, where the number of positive tests has been low, 28 days is unreasonable, Dungey said. It's "a hopeless target," in her experience.
She and her father were hours away from seeing Ann face-to-face again on July 23 when Loretto, the health care organization that owns The Commons, canceled the visit due to a positive test there the previous day. The facility had resumed visitation the week prior after its reopening plan was approved, said Julie Sheedy, chief marketing and engagement officer for Loretto.
Additional positive tests at The Commons followed on July 29 and Aug. 7, resetting the 28-day clock each time. The facility hasn't had a positive test since then, Sheedy said, so if its weekly tests administered on Sept. 9 come back negative, face-to-face visits will resume again on Monday, Sept. 14. Dungey plans to schedule one soon for her and her parents.
But how long before the clock resets again? she asked.
Another relative of a Commons resident, Terri Fitzmaurice, wonders the same thing. Her last face-to-face visit with her 94-year-old mother, June Parton, was March 9.
"I just feel like this could go on and on and on," Fitzmaurice told The Citizen. "I don't see the light at the end of the tunnel, I guess, for seeing my mother again."
Like Dungey, Fitzmaurice is thankful for the staff of The Commons. They help her arrange window visits and FaceTime or phone calls, too. But there's no substitute for a daughter's attention to her mother's hygiene, she said, or her clothes. Dungey said that one time she saw her mother, she was wearing a stained blouse that Dungey had to ask to take home and spot treat.
She said Ann also hasn't had a haircut or perm since the pandemic began. "That's not my wife," Bud once remarked of the woman he married more than 65 years ago. And their July anniversary was one of many special occasions the Pecks haven't been able to celebrate face-to-face. For Fitzmaurice, it was hard not spending Easter and Mother's Day with June.
She and Dungey both understand the urgency of the state's COVID-19 guidance. They're grateful The Commons hasn't seen one of the outbreaks that have killed more than 6,600 nursing home residents in New York state since March. But they believe the state should strike a better balance between the physical health and the mental health of its elderly.
"They're just sitting in their chairs," Fitzmaurice said. "There's TV and activities. But there's nothing like seeing your family members come in and visit ... these people have got to see their families."
Shortening the positive test window at nursing homes from 28 days to 14 — the number of quarantine days the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends — may strike that balance.
Fitzmaurice said she'd gladly comply with the temperature checks, social distancing, personal protective equipment and other requirements of the state Department of Health's guidance. Dungey is uncertain how satisfying face-to-face visits can be with those requirements — and with no hugs. But as winter approaches, she noted, window visits won't be an option for much longer.
"After six months, I'm ready to storm the governor's office, too," Dungey said. "There have to be ways we can keep these vulnerable residents safe physically, but open to visits by loved ones."
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