En español | Everyone in Blauvelt, New York, knew John Boyle. His oldest sister, Susan Edwards-McCloskey, says he was outgoing, athletic and planned to be a professional motocross, or off-road motorcycle, racer. But a crash — he skidded out and another racer rode over him — left him with an injured back, wiping out that dream. Instead, his sister says, Boyle became a trusted handyman — until a stroke at 52 nearly killed him.
For more than eight years, Boyle, now 60, has been a resident at the Northern Manor Multicare Center in nearby Nanuet, about 35 miles north of New York City. The family moved him into the facility because it was close to home and accepted Medicaid. He uses a wheelchair, his right side “completely paralyzed,” his sister says. He understands where he is and what he's lost, she adds, but struggles to speak. And for Edwards-McCloskey, the COVID-19 crisis has made her role as protector more difficult than it already was, as the federal ban on nursing home visits enters its third month.
A former union steward who spent nearly 30 years with Verizon, Edwards-McCloskey, 67, isn't afraid to speak up. “Everyone there knows my name because if they're not doing what they're supposed to, I start screaming about it,” she says of Northern Manor.
She says she tries to be friendly and knows people are overworked. But she also says she's had plenty to yell about over the years, including moldy food and those two weeks when she says her brother went unbathed. She also claims that her brother hasn't gotten adequate exercise, physical therapy or consistent help to improve his speech.
A spokesman for the nursing home, Jeff Jacomowitz, pushed back on these complaints. He said there are no grievances on file from the family about moldy food or cleanliness issues. He also said Boyle is on record for refusing both physical and speech therapies.
Edwards-McCloskey insists that she's made plenty of noise, just not through formal complaints, and that her brother — whom she describes as “the most easygoing guy in that place” — has only refused therapy when approached at bad times, like during a nap. She also points to the home's poor ratings: An official Medicare tool that compares nursing homes gives Northern Manor an overall rating of two stars on a five-star scale, citing various violations.
The family thought about moving Boyle, Edwards-McCloskey says, but other options were too far away. Plus, her brother smokes. The odds of finding another facility that provides a smoking room are next to none.
Edwards-McCloskey lives 15 minutes away in Nyack and used to visit a few times a week. She'd bring him his favorite foods, like her spaghetti and meatballs, chicken cutlets and egg noodles. Friday mornings meant a breakfast sandwich, doughnuts and coffee from Dunkin'. He knew when to expect her, and her visits helped beat back his depression. Sometimes she'd bring her son's dog Bubba to lift her baby brother's spirits. He loves animals, and one of his only pleasures is rolling out into the small courtyard to feed the birds.
Getting information from the nursing home has never been easy, Edwards-McCloskey says. She says she has no idea if there have been any cases of coronavirus there. But she also admits that she hasn't reached out to higher-ups to ask.
There have been five confirmed COVID deaths and seven presumed COVID deaths at Northern Manor as of June 7, according to the New York State Department of Health. And Jacomowitz says there are 23 cases of coronavirus, including both residents and staff. Information about protective measures, efforts to mitigate the spread and positive cases, he says, has been reported to families by phone, through letters and by way of the nursing home's website.
Jacomowitz says Northern Manor also encourages families to “take advantage of our open-door policy via phone” if they have concerns or questions. “The health, safety and care of our residents and staff are first and foremost our top priority,” he says. “We understand how hard it is for families not to be with their loved ones during these times, but we need to be patient as we all wait on visitor restrictions to be lifted.”
Edwards-McCloskey, though, isn't afraid to break rules — never has been. Her focus is on Boyle, who rarely picks up the phone in his room and, if he does, can't articulate what he wants to say. So she ignores the sign on the door barring visitors, the same plea that exists on the website. Her brother calls her every Monday, and she tells him when she'll be coming and what food she'll be bringing. She pulls up in front of the home and waits until she spots his wheelchair coming down the hallway.
He stays behind a line of tape on the far end of the foyer, and from where she stands near the door, she's able to look him over. She peers into his green eyes, asks if he's OK and reminds him to stay away from anyone who's sick. She sees if he's wearing a mask, is assured that he's not coughing and drops off a good meal before she's ordered to leave.
"They don't like me being there, but tough,” she says. “I'm going to go up and see for myself.”
This article grew out of our effort to collect stories of people with loved ones in nursing homes. Share your story.