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Amid pandemic, Californians can now visit loved ones in nursing homes, but few are going

A nursing home director hands a mask to an elderly couple sitting on a bench during an outdoor visit at the facility
Chaparral House executive director KJ Page, left, hands a mask to Larry Yabroff as he sits with his wife, Mary, while visiting her at the Berkeley skilled nursing facility Friday.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

For months, families have pined to see their loved ones who live in California’s skilled nursing facilities, which have been shut down to outside visitors to keep the coronavirus from spreading.

California health authorities recently issued guidance for visits to resume, but few are happening as infection rates surge in many communities. Facilities are being cautious after many suffered severe outbreaks earlier in the pandemic.

“I’m desperate at this point,” said Sue Mathis, who hasn’t seen her 94-year-old mother in San Francisco in four months. “My mother calls me crying, sometimes several times a day, begging me that she wants to see me, and when will she see me, and will she be able to see me before she dies. It’s crazy.”

“I have not heard from anybody since the new policy went into place on June 26 who said, ‘Hey, I am now able to visit my loved one in a nursing home, at least outdoors,’” she said.

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DeAnn Walters, director of clinical affairs at the California Assn. of Health Facilities, said outdoor visits need to be monitored and require staff time, and facilities might be reluctant to take that on while dealing with coronavirus cases.

“Having some kind of safe visit really is important,” Walters said, but “just because one entity says, ‘Hey, this is OK,’ we still have to be responsive to our other agencies that guide us.”

The National Center for Assisted Living isn’t tracking each state’s rules or procedures but says more are allowing visitation or will soon. Many relatives say the prolonged isolation and lack of activities for residents, who are largely confined to their rooms, have contributed to a decline in their loved ones’ mental and physical health.

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Chaparral House, a skilled nursing facility in Berkeley, created special procedures for outdoor visits for residents who can’t join in video chats because of their health conditions or if they are dying, said KJ Page, the facility’s administrator. Visitors must make appointments, wear masks and get tested for the virus.

Signs with info on COVID-19 symptoms, social distancing rules and no-visitation policies posted on a nursing facility's door
Signs with information on COVID-19 symptoms, social distancing rules and visitation policies are posted on the front door of Chaparral House in Berkeley.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

Larry Yabroff, 78, has been able to visit his wife, Mary, who has Alzheimer’s disease, under these conditions. She couldn’t grasp video chats and became agitated during window visits, he said. So he wears a mask, gets tested regularly for COVID-19 and largely stays home except for walks — and the handful of times he has gone to see his wife.

On Friday, he had his temperature taken at the front entrance to the facility before being escorted around the building to a garden out back. His wife was brought out in a wheelchair, and they sat on a bench and talked.

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“I enter into her reality, whatever it is, and that is calming for her,” he said. “She is definitely happy to see me, which is a blessing.”

Page said the facility wants to offer outdoor visits to more residents, but it won’t without approval from city health officials.

“God forbid we reopen and everybody gets COVID,” she said.

Tim Carlson, compliance officer at the Los Angeles Jewish Home, said the facility is planning to hold outdoor visits once county health officials approve. It is also looking at ways to cope with the at-times sweltering Southern California heat, possibly by creating a tiny module with two compartments to allow for cooler — and separate — air.

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Before the state guidelines were issued, some nursing homes came up with creative ways to provide for outdoor visits. At Vienna Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Lodi, residents were brought out to an open air patio enclosed by a wrought-iron fence, and relatives could make appointments to see them from a spot on the public sidewalk nearby, albeit over the din of traffic.

Coronavirus has swept through skilled nursing facilities nationwide, killing hundreds. In California, one company controls numerous homes with outbreaks, including a hard-hit facility in Tulare County.

Mia Hanna said she had seen her 91-year-old mother only on Skype calls until last month, when she got a visit at Pasadena’s Monte Vista Grove Homes, which had installed a plexiglass booth. Her mother wanted to reach out and hug her, she said, but the visit, at least, was something.

She hoped to continue the booth visits but said the facility canceled them after a worker tested positive for the coronavirus.

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“There has to be a better way,” Hanna said, adding that her mother will probably need surgery this summer. “These are the last months on Earth, and I’m spending them on Skype with her. I try to be grateful about that, but it’s not the same.”


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