When Susan Kenney didn't get a response to her frantic calls about the results of her 78-year-old father's COVID-19 test or an update on his pneumonia from the Massachusetts nursing home where he lived, she got desperate.
Kenney, 53, took a grease pencil and wrote on the side of her car: “Is my dad alive? Shame on the Soldiers’ Home, over 30 hours with no call back.” Then she drove to the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke and parked outside.
Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.
Eventually she learned that her father, Charles Lowell, had tested positive for the virus. She was able to FaceTime with him before he was transferred, about a week later, to a nearby hospital for additional care, where he died from the virus within days.
Kenney and her mother were able to briefly visit with him in the hospital. “We were worried about our health,” she said, “but I know my mother wouldn't trade that for the world.” Still, the time spent waiting for information about her father's condition and being unable to communicate with him was “heart-wrenching,” Kenney said. “It's a horrible time for all the families."
Since then, the Soldiers’ Home, which serves military veterans, has emerged as a coronavirus hot spot. Massachusetts officials have reported that at least 52 of 62 recent deaths there were linked to COVID-19.
The coronavirus pandemic has devastated nursing homes across the country. At least 10,000 of the Americans who’ve died of COVID-19 — more than 1 in 5 reported coronavirus deaths — were living in or connected to nursing homes, according to a Wall Street Journal investigation.
The crisis has sparked calls for more testing kits and personal protective equipment for nursing homes, where staff members have been forced to reuse masks and gowns. The flood of deaths has also cast a klieg light on long-term problems with America's nursing home system, including inadequate staffing, infection control and communication with families.
Now, longtime advocates for the nation's roughly 1.3 million nursing home residents see the crisis as an opportunity to push for reforms.
AARP is asking Congress to require nursing homes to facilitate virtual visits between residents and their families. The organization is pushing for more real-time transparency around which homes have COVID-19 cases. And it wants a plan to deal with the reduction of nursing home staff, which was already stretched thin in many places.
"This is a transformative event for the long-term care industry,” said David Bruns, a spokesman for AARP Florida, which is pushing for more transparency and accountability for nursing homes.