By Amita Sharma, KPBS, July 1 2020
Advocates are asking the state to end what they call the trauma of “solitary confinement” of residents at senior care facilities by allowing them at least one designated visitor.
The request comes nearly four months after California’s long-term care communities banned all visitors at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, a move that has exacted a deep toll on residents.
Caregivers report that some people living in senior homes have grown despondent after going months without seeing family and friends. A few have stopped eating and getting out of bed. And some cognitively impaired residents have even thrown devices meant to aid with virtual visits.
Advocates say the absence of family visits has removed an important layer of detection to catch when residents are unwell, neglected or even abused. This at a time when nationally, nearly 45% of all COVID-19 deaths are tied to long-term care facilities.
“This isolation has led to preventable deaths, higher morbidity and mortality and emotional devastation residents and families alike,” said Pat McGinnis, executive director of California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform. “Continuing to leave nursing home residents to get infected, to suffer and to die alone is not a civilized option.”
The advocates are calling on the state to mandate that each resident in a senior care facility have at least one “support person visitor” who would undergo the same screening for COVID-19 as people who work at the facility.
“Visitation is not just a good idea, it’s codified in federal and state law,” said Tony Chicotel, staff lawyer with CANHR. “It’s a protected right. The visitation ban has been the most massive civil rights violation in the 70-year history of the modern nursing home.”
In emails to KPBS, representatives of senior care facilities have said they are now allowing visitors to facilities under certain circumstances.
“We feel it’s extremely important to get family and visitors back into nursing homes and have been asking the state for the last month to open up facilities,” said Deborah Pacyna, director of public affairs for the California Association of Health Facilities, which represents nursing homes. “We are in the process of putting together guidance for indoor visits as well.”
Under current state and federal rules, nursing homes and assisted living communities can designate one visitor per resident if there is a decline in new cases in their cities and facilities, adequate staffing and testing and good safety compliance.
“In cases, where the criteria listed aren’t met, window visits or drive-by visits are okay, as are medically necessary visits (such as end-of-life visits),” said Katie Cappello, director of communications for the California Assisted Living Association. “Virtual visits (facetime, Zoom, etc.) are still facilitated.”
Chicotel said the difference between what senior care facility representatives and the state have offered so far and what advocates are proposing is the latter wants the visits to be mandated and enforceable.
KPBS reached out to Governor Gavin Newsom’s office to ask if the state would mandate a designated visitor. There has been no reply so far.
Update: Following publication of this article, the California Department of Health emailed KPBS a link to its guidance on visitation rules for senior care facilities. Click here to read the guidance.