Amanda Ulrich, Palm Springs Desert Sun, May 1 2020
Katie Finn stays in virtual contact with her grandmother in nursing home. Palm Springs Desert Sun
Katie Finn had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach as nursing homes across the country went into lockdown last month, hoping to curb the spread of the coronavirus among an already vulnerable population.
Finn’s grandmother Carole Gowdy, who is 86, has Alzheimer’s disease. She is a resident at Legend Gardens Assisted Living and Memory Care in Palm Desert and is cared for in its memory care unit.
Because of the precautions in place to curb the pandemic, Finn, who lives in La Quinta, is now barred from entering the facility and her grandmother has trouble understanding why her closest living relative hasn’t been visiting.
“She wants me to come get her,” Finn said. “When I explain to her that I can’t, she just doesn’t understand. [She’ll say] ‘What do you mean you can’t come? I’ll tell them you can and you just come get me.’”
Fear about the spread of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities hit a fever pitch in mid-March. Nursing homes in California quickly began to restrict visitors and nonessential personnel, close communal living areas and cancel activities.
Nursing home populations, the federal Centers for Disease Control warned, are at the highest risk of being impacted by the coronavirus.
Still, despite taking precautionary measures, many nursing homes in Riverside County have been hit hard by coronavirus outbreaks in recent weeks.
As of April 28, infections have been reported in nearly 20 skilled nursing facilities in the county, according to statewide data released by the California Department of Public Health.
In addition, more than 650 staff and patients in the region tested positive across nursing homes and assisted living facilities, the county’s Public Health Department stated this week.
Over 220 nursing homes across California have confirmed COVID-19 cases, while more than 500 residents of those facilities have died.
And, for the family members, staff and seniors living in long-term care communities, particularly those who suffer from dementia, the coronavirus panic, as well as their overarching acceptance of what has become the new normal, has been mentally fraying.
Finn said her biggest fear hasn’t been COVID-19, but that her grandmother is alone.
Though the two are able to FaceTime – with the help of a nursing home staff member’s cellphone – the loss of daily, in-person visits has been palpable.
“My heart is broken,” Finn said. “I’m just terrified that she’s going to pass away in there because of her age without me being able to see her. I’m terrified she’s going to pass away all alone.”
As infections spread, visits get creative
At ManorCare Health Services in Hemet, 51 staff and patients have tested positive for coronavirus as of this week, according to the state Department of Public Health.
Riverside County tallied an even higher number at ManorCare: 79 confirmed cases.
Stephanie Linn’s 94-year-old grandmother, Marilyn, currently lives at that facility.
Linn said the nursing home called last month to report a confirmed case of COVID-19, and then again to say her grandmother was sick with a fever. Fortunately, she eventually tested negative.
While the experience has been worrying, one bright spot has been communicating with her grandmother through a nursing home window, Linn said.
On one recent visit, a few staff members helped the 94-year-old into a wheelchair and then pushed her to the bedroom window. One nurse stayed with her during the entire visit, holding a phone up to her ear.
“You could tell [the nurse] was really touched because even he got teary-eyed watching us try to interact,” Linn said.
Still, Linn can’t help but notice a subtle change in her grandmother. She lives in a quiet room by herself, and she’s gradually becoming more confused about her surroundings. The facility recently called to say she wasn’t eating much either, Linn added.
Up until early March, when Linn’s grandmother fell, broke her hip and was first moved into the nursing home, she lived with family.
“She always said what kept her going for so many years is that she’s been in a house with her family, all my kids,” Linn said. “It’s hard to explain to someone that age why no one is visiting them.”
The spread of the coronavirus has also complicated what were intended to be shorter stays in skilled nursing facilities.
Darin Spencer, 55, a resident at California Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Palm Springs, suffered a stroke last January that paralyzed the left side of his body.
Weeks at the center for rehabilitation turned into a year and now COVID-19 has made it next to impossible for him to leave. Spencer said he would need to get a hospital bed in his apartment and find a home health care worker.
“I suspect that wouldn’t be too easy right now, either. Before this, I was planning to leave as soon as possible,” Spencer said. “The lockdown kind of stopped all that in its tracks.”
At the nursing center, Spencer shares a room with two other people. His allotted section of the small space is 8-by-8 feet wide, he said, and staff members continually filter in and out.
He’s self-relegated to his bed for most of the day. “You’re crammed in so tight it’s hard to function,” he said.
Spencer has a laundry list of complaints about the facility, many of which he’s written about on Facebook – neglectful management, poor care, cleanliness issues – but gives credit to some dedicated staff.
“Almost all of them are really nice people; they care, they’re helpful,” he said. “I appreciate them. They’re working their tails off.”
Even in the midst of coronavirus lockdowns, some previous residents of skilled nursing facilities have found ways to return home.
One of them, Marilyn Markovich, checked into Rancho Mirage Health and Rehabilitation Center on March 5 after having a hip replacement. A few days later, she celebrated her 70th birthday with friends and family in her room at the facility.
Just one week later, another resident at the center tested positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalized. Markovich said the facility never told residents that the 73-year-old woman later died.
“You really had to ask, ‘What’s going on?’” Markovich said. “They said she tested positive, but I had to wait until I was discharged to find out that she had eventually died.”
Everyone who remained at the facility was tested for the virus.
Markovich said that in order to continue receiving antibiotic infusions when she finally left the center, her infectious disease doctor needed written verification that she had tested negative for COVID-19.
“The virus came at a time when I was trying to leave the facility. And I, and a couple of the residents, was kinda trapped,” she said. “I’m a very positive person and I’m not fearful of most things. But I thought, ‘I really want to get out of here.’”
She was finally discharged at the end of March.
Unlike Markovich, thousands of others continue to wait out the virus from inside long-term care facilities across California.
In recent weeks, Riverside County has attempted to aid badly hit nursing facilities by deploying specialized “SOS” (or Skilled Nursing Facilities + Outreach Support) teams. Those SOS teams have now visited over 140 facilities and done 10 follow-up visits, the county said.
But as Katie Finn, whose grandmother has Alzheimer’s, pointed out, many nursing home patients don’t have time on their side.
“When these people get to be a certain age and they’re in these facilities, they’re at the end of their life,” she said. “And to be locked down and alone in that situation – I just think when people get to be a certain age, they deserve better.”