Senior Citizens Facing Unique Set of Circumstances, Especially in Nursing Homes

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The entrance at Burcham Hills, which is no longer allowing visitors due to the coronavirus emergency. (Photo by Alice Dreger)

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has upended life around the globe, but the effects have been particularly acute for the elderly, who face a unique conundrum. Already more vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation, senior citizens have been asked to isolate themselves from family and loved ones to protect themselves from the coronavirus.

Nursing home and elder-care facilities have taken unprecedented measures to protect their residents, essentially sealing them off from the outside world and even from each other. Over the past week, facilities in East Lansing enacted a series of more stringent policies to ensure social distancing and prevent transmission of the virus.

This week, ELi spoke to several residents at Burcham Hills and also gained access to memos that the Burcham Hills administration sent to “Burcham Hills Residents, Visitors and Staff,” updating the community on the rapidly changing policies on visiting the facility and communal life there.

Burcham Hills first grappled with the realities of the pandemic on March 10, the day of the Michigan primary. The facility has traditionally served as a polling site for East Lansing residents. This year, to protect the residents, the Burcham administration implemented plans to keep voters away from the residents.

By that evening, the pandemic had officially reached Michigan. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced several confirmed cases in Michigan, included one in Ingham county, and declared a state of emergency.

Burcham Hills created an Incident Command Team to respond to a rapidly changing situation. By March 12, the Burcham administration had informed residents, families, and staff that while the Burcham Hills community had no cases of COVID-19, it was implementing mandatory screening for all visitors and canceling all “external entertainment in the community.”

The March 12 statement restricted visiting hours to between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. and required all would-be visitors to undergo screening. Anyone who had traveled internationally or had close contact with someone who had traveled internationally in the past 14 days would not be permitted entry. Temperature checks were implemented, and anyone exhibiting the symptoms of COVID-19 would be prevented from entering.

According to resident Danny Black, who is at Burcham Hills for rehab, these measures were short-lived. He found out about the restrictions around 5 p.m. on March 12 – one hour before the 6 p.m. end to visiting hours. By the next day, Friday, March 13, a new set of rules were in play.

The next morning, Burcham Hills restricted entrance to permit only medically necessary visits. For many residents, this left no time to see family one last time.

Support from Some Residents

Both Black and another resident, William Root, tell ELi that although they are cut off from family and friends on the outside, they believe that the Burcham Hills administration is acting in the best interest of the residents. Both men stated that the staff had been very welcoming before the pandemic, but they had really risen to the occasion in recent days.

Because he was watching the news frequently, Black was not shocked by the measures. After seeing press conferences in which officials called for social distancing and restricting gatherings to 10 people, Black knew it was only a matter of time until Burcham Hills restricted communal activities.

He was right. On Saturday, March 14, Burcham Hills administrators communicated with residents, families, and staff that they were working on a plan to suspend communal meals and activities, following new directives from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

By Monday of this week, all residents were taking their meals in their rooms.

Root reports that residents are not necessarily confined to their rooms. They could leave, but there is just nowhere to go. Residents are asked to not leave the building, and now, there are no activities to attend.

Root, who is 96, said he does not mind. He confessed to being a workaholic for over 75 years. The recent measures have allowed him to focus on his work that he carries out on his computer.

Black missed the sociability, but he emphasized all that the staff at Burcham have been stepping up to provide socialization. For St. Patrick’s Day on Tuesday, the medical care team dressed up and went room to room. Black took pictures of as many as he could.

He also shared with ELi the schedule of “events” for the next month. Each day has a theme that the staff will honor. Even administrators and other employees have made the rounds to chat with each patient, as well as to take residents’ temperatures.

Appreciates staff’s communications

Black appreciated how transparent the Burcham team has been, pointing to the tidbits he has learned from passing conversations. All employees are screened before entering, including with temperature checks. His care team was honest with him when one employee was turned away due to running a fever.

In addition to keeping spirits high, Burcham’s communications with residents and families highlight the other battles the care teams face. Some are challenges we all face – having to constantly sanitize frequently touched surfaces and doing temperature checks — but others are unique. Family members often do laundry for residents.

New protocols have been put in place for pick-ups and drop-offs. The main entrance is closed now. Instead, people enter at what is normally an outpatient therapy clinic to pick up or leave clothes on shelving just inside the door, without coming into close contact with a receptionist stationed there. Staff transport items from there to residents’ apartments. Vendor deliveries are following new special protocols.

Other elder care facilities in the area are also adopting similar policies. The Willows and Independence Village did not respond to ELi’s call, but their websites outline how they are implementing new guidelines from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid: sanitation, monitoring, and cancelled events that are ubiquitous in these facilities.

There’s good reason for these special precautions. In our most-read and most-shared article ever, ELi reported earlier this week that the elderly are significantly more likely to suffer the worst effects of COVID-19 due to both their age and their increased likelihood of having other underlying conditions.

In Italy and China, the vast majority of those who have died from the disease were over age 50. In the United States, the outbreak of COVID-19 in a nursing home in the Seattle area killed nearly 20.

Everyone here is hoping to avoid anything like that kind of experience in this community.

ELi has a special section dedicated to our reporting on COVID-19 for East Lansing. See it here and sign up for ELi’s mailer to stay informed

Need to contact ELi’s staff? Contact us through this link.

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