When Kristen Smith learned she could no longer visit her 90-year-old father and his cat, she worried about how they’d fare in his nursing home’s memory care unit near her home in Woodinville, Wash.
Her visits helped keep her father grounded and she kept watch over his cat, which he sometimes forgot to feed, said Smith, 60, in a phone interview.
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Coronavirus-inspired social distancing has spurred some families to embrace videoconferencing apps on smartphones and tablets to keep in touch, but Smith was skeptical that her dad would do that. “He doesn’t always understand how to use his phone,” she said. “He doesn’t understand FaceTime.”
Federal restrictions barring visitors to nursing homes — except in cases of compassionate care, such as end-of-life care — because of the coronavirus are frustrating relatives and friends of nursing home residents across the country.
“During this difficult time, it’s critical that residents are able to stay connected with their loved ones,” said Megan O’Reilly, AARP’s vice president of Health and Family. “Virtual visitation plays an important role in both the health and well-being of residents and their families. It also helps to protect against social isolation, which can have very real and serious health impacts.”
Earlier this month, AARP urged the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to update its guidance to nursing homes to require them to facilitate alternatives for in-person visits, with an emphasis on virtual communications.
“Such virtual visits can be essential to the emotional, mental, physical, and social well-being of nursing home residents,” AARP said in a letter to CMS. “For some residents, these virtual visits may be the difference between life and death.”
AARP also urged the federal agency to assign staff members as specific contacts for families, and provide a telephone hotline that families could call to get information about their relatives.
Catching up to televisit tech
One Northern California network of senior communities and services, called Eskaton, has swiftly boosted the number of tablets to help residents in its 450 skilled nursing home beds, said Sheri Peifer, Eskaton’s chief strategy officer.
“We used to have two to three of them. Now we have 10 to 15,” Peifer said in an interview. The nonprofit network is setting the tablets up with Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts and FaceTime, she said.