Forefront in the news are the deaths of our elderly population in skilled nursing homes during the COVID-19 pandemic Ninety percent of residents have a recorded disability. One-third of U. S. COVID-19 deaths are in nursing homes.
According to a May 17, 2020, Times Magazine article, “The nursing home industry was in trouble before COVID-19 struck. Nearly 70% of the country’s roughly 15,600 nursing homes are for-profit, and 57% are run by chains. For years, nursing homes have struggled to attract new residents, faced high staffing turnover rates and shortages, and often operated on thin margins with little room to upgrade their facilities.” How, then, does one who is a partaker of medical services in a skilled nursing home and rehabilitation facility feel, particularly now? Cautious. Distrustful. Afraid of infection. Isolated. The worse part is prolonged separation from family and friends. Add to this a disability and the issues are compounded. A person with any kind of disabling condition, unless fairly independent, needs close-up care on a daily basis – at home or in a facility.
I’ve been on both sides of the coin. In 1995, I was paralyzed as the result of a benign spinal cord tumor. Following surgery to remove it (11 hours) and months of intense physical, occupational, recreational, and pool rehabilitation, I regained my mobility. Over the years, however, my strength decreased, and I would need more care and rehabilitation for short periods of time that increasingly became longer. Since 1995, I have been in at least seven hospitals and five skilled nursing/rehabilitation facilities. I’ve experienced the best and the worst. I write today, in the midst of nursing home tragedies everywhere to commend the Laurels of Athens (Number One of those in which I’ve been), for working diligently to keep residents in long care safe as well as those who come for rehabilitation.
If the Laurels ever has a COVID-19 case, it won’t be because the facility didn’t do all it could to avoid it. Two weeks before the Governor announced the state’s shut down, the Laurels began austere measures. Every employee coming and going uses only one door in the building to enter and exit which is monitored, has the temperature taken and recorded, signs in and out, and affirms no sickness present. All staff, no exceptions, change street clothes into laundered uniforms, swipe their shoes on a disinfectant mat, and wear an N-95 mask from the time they leave their vehicle to the time they return after a shift. The Laurels of Athens is known for its cleanliness and extra measures are taken with all surfaces. Packages are disinfected and placed in a dedicated room for 14 days before passing on and incoming letters are cleaned carefully. Gatherings for activities are suspended (even Bingo!) except for in room activities or clusters of three or four with appropriate distancing. Therapy follows the same principles – only two or three residents in the gym at the same time with distancing. Residents must wear masks when out of their rooms and employees cannot bring items from home. Food is provided at the facility. Needless to say, hand washing is the utmost. Sound like prison? Perhaps. I see it as preventative. These actions not only protect the staff and the residents, but also the families of the staff they return home to each day.
Most difficult is not being able to see loved ones and friends except through your windowpane.
There is hope though. A skilled nursing and rehabilitation center in Belpre, Ohio, recently created a “visitation station” allowing families to somewhat reunite with their loved ones through plexiglass panels that creates a safe environment. To further protect its residents, The Laurels dedicated one unit for those returning from brief hospital stays. They are separated for 14 days before going to another dedicated hall. Yes, there are issues with just about every facility on any given day minus the pandemic. Yet others could benefit by taking a few pages out of the Laurels’ administrator Shaun Gentner and his team’s playbook. A debt of gratitude is owed to the dedicated staff in all departments – housekeeping, maintenance, kitchen, rehabilitation, activities, nursing, nurses’ aides, administration – who work tirelessly to provide caring, quality service, and to keep us safe.
Dr. Carolyn Bailey Lewis is Director and General Manager Emerita, WOUB Public Media, Ohio University and currently receiving medical services at The Laurels. She is a member of the Athens City Commission on Disabilities, the Athens County Board of Developmental Disabilities, and the United Seniors of Athens County Board of Directors.