‘I just wish I would die:’ Policymakers ponder the social costs of COVID isolation for residents of long-term care facilities

Daniela Altimari, Hartford Courant
·4 min read

Restrictions meant to protect residents of the state’s nursing homes and assisted living facilities from the coronavirus have taken a devastating toll on their emotional health.

“One of my biggest concerns is the mental well-being of these residents,” said Annette Cochefski, director of clinical services for Brookdale Senior Living, which operates assisted living communities across the nation.

"We have had more suicide threats or verbalizations of ‘I just wish I would die because I can’t live in a world like this anymore,’'' Cochefski told state lawmakers Monday. "It’s difficult for caregivers and the families to hear this.''

Gov. Ned Lamont and state lawmakers established a bipartisan working group to examine the impact the of pandemic on nursing homes and assisted living facilities. The group will issue its recommendations to the legislature early next year.

Cochefski and members of the panel focused on socialization and visitation during Monday’s meeting.

“There was an understanding right away that there were going to be harmful consequences” of the restrictions, said Matthew Barrett, executive vice president of the Connecticut Association of Healthcare Facilities.

But, Barrett added, there is also an "understanding it was a necessary thing to do.'' Residents of nursing homes and assisted living communities constitute two thirds of all the state’s coronavirus deaths.

In the early days of the pandemic, in March, Lamont sharply restricted visitation to care homes and assisted living complexes serving the elderly. Public health experts said the limits were needed to protect a vulnerable population that has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

In April and May, when the virus was at its peak, nearly 75 percent of the state’s deaths were concentrated in long-term care facilities. More than 2,500 nursing home residents have died during the pandemic.

Mairead Painter, the state’s longterm care ombudsman, said she is working with facilities to ensure residents can safely interact with family members. Under current guidelines, indoors visits are permitted under certain conditions.

"Were [the restrictions on visitation] necessary in order to keep COVID out? Yes. However we know that that impact has been so great to residents that we have to find a different way to do this,'' Painter said.

Some nursing home residents have spent months in their rooms, Painter said. “The only interactions they were having was at times of care,'' she said. ”We know when individuals don’t get up and move regularly, when they don’t interact with people regularly, they lose some of that ability.''

With cases now rising in Connecticut and across the nation, some residents have expressed their fears of contracting the virus, Cochefski said. But others "have actually voiced that they would rather see their loved one and take the risk,'' she said. "They want to see their family.”

A national survey by a nonprofit consultant, Altarum, found that three-quarters of nursing home residents felt lonelier since the pandemic restrictions began and a majority said they no longer leave their room to socialize with other residents.

Balancing the emotional needs of residents with the desire to keep them-- and nursing home staff--safe by stopping the spread of the virus has been a challenge for healthcare administrators.

“These are folks who have been through multiple tragedies in their lives, wars and things like that,'' she said. “Seeing their loved one and getting a hug....means the world to them."

Technology has helped, but it cannot bridge every divide, for care facility residents as well as their families.

LIz Stern told the panel about her family. Her mother, who had dementia, lived in a long-term care facility in Southeastern Connecticut prior to her death earlier this month. Stern, her siblings and her father last saw her nine months ago.

"We have to redefine safety,'' Stern said. "My mother’s dementia protected her from the horrors of the isolation but not her five children and her husband from the horrors of being separated from her.''

Her parents would have marked their 69th anniversary this week and her father is having trouble accepting his wife’s death, Stern said.

"The impact [of isolation] on the people in the outside is something were not talking too much about and I think we need to,'' Stern said. "This has traumatized our family.''

Daniela Altimari can be reached at dnaltimari@courant.com

———

©2020 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

Visit The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.) at www.courant.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.