En español | After the coronavirus pandemic triggered a federal ban on nursing home visits, Alison Lolley struggled to get information from the nursing home where her mother lived in Monroe, Louisiana. She watched in horror through a window as her mother deteriorated. And after her mom tested positive with the virus and was taken to the hospital, Lolley said goodbye by iPad, hours before Cheryl Fink Lolley, 81, died alone on April 29.
“Her last words to me were ‘love, love, love, love, love,’” Lolley said through tears, remembering what her mom told her by iPad the day she arrived at the hospital. “I never imagined that I wouldn’t be with her when she was passing.”
In the early days of the lockdown, her mom’s eyes lit up whenever Lolley showed up outside and tapped on the window of her room at the nursing home, called The Oaks. Her mother, always gracious and fun, would roll up close, as fast as her wheelchair would take her. Lolley spoke loudly, her face up to the window’s outer screen. When that didn’t work, they’d talk by phone while admiring one another through the glass.
The first 10 weeks of the year, before the lockdown, had been among the best Lolley and her mother ever shared. Lolley, 55, had retired from a 30-year career in newspaper publishing in Dallas and finally felt available. She moved her mother back from Dallas to her hometown of Monroe, where they lived around the corner from one another. The pair enjoyed frequent visits in her mother’s nursing home, long lunches and quality time uninterrupted.
But by mid-April, what Lolley saw and heard began to scare her. Her mother, usually put together and made up — a true “Southern lady” — appeared disheveled, her hair unbrushed. Her mother, who was mentally sharp, would mention that “things didn’t seem right” and said, more than once, that she hadn’t been fed.
Lolley peered through the window one day to find her mother unclothed and confused. She says she called the nursing home each time she grew alarmed, getting promises that her mom would be tended to immediately.
Lolley worried about turnover and knew the nursing home was short staffed, but says she didn’t know how bad it had become. When a letter arrived in the mail on April 17 announcing that an employee had tested positive for COVID-19, Lolley’s heart sank. Less than a week later, she got the call that her mom was being transported to the hospital.
“The fact is, we were robbed. Mama was trapped in a petri dish, and we were shut out,” Lolley said this month as she recounted her family’s experience before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis. “Mama died alone, and my family will forever be scarred by this tragedy.”
Like so many other families, Lolley’s learned too late that their loved one’s caretakers were ill equipped to manage such a fast-moving crisis. What angers her most is what she says was the lack of communication and transparency from the facility, a grievance echoed by other families of nursing home residents. She says she’d been told that other cases of coronavirus were contained and were not in her mother’s wing, that the home had moved “past it.” If she’d known the truth, Lolley says she would have moved her mother out. Lolley has lupus and couldn’t risk exposure but insists she would have figured something out.
As of the latest nursing home report out of Louisiana, 19 residents at The Oaks have tested positive and six have died. Going into the pandemic, the nursing home had more than 80 residents, it said in written statement to AARP, and it denied “allegations of any wrongdoing.” The numbers reflect those in nursing homes across the country, which account for more than 1 in 3 coronavirus deaths.
“We are committed to providing a safe and comfortable environment for our residents and grieve the loss of all in our care,” the statement said. “The Oaks management and staff are working tirelessly to provide all residents with respect, dignity and a maximum quality of life amidst this pandemic.”
The statement said families should be assured that the nursing home is “working closely with Federal, state, and local health agencies for updates and guidance to best protect the welfare of our residents, families and staff.” It also said the staff “maintains multiple communication channels with residents’ designated loved ones.”
Such words ring hollow and offer little comfort to Lolley, whose grief is mixed with feelings of guilt and regret. Before Louisiana, her mother had lived in a Dallas nursing home since 2012. The city had been Lolley’s home for decades, and she’d looked out for her mother ever since Lolley’s parents divorced more than 35 years earlier. Her mom had bipolar disorder, and she thrived in the safety of a nursing home, which monitored compliance with medications.
Lolley returned to Monroe to tend to some family affairs after her father’s death in 2018. Later, she moved her mother to join her. If she’d left her mother in Dallas, she wonders, would she still be alive today?
To deal with this weight, Lolley is on a mission to force change in the nursing home industry. She contacted a TV station after her mom was hospitalized. She testified before Congress. She’d like nursing home administrators to be trained, receive certification and take the Hippocratic oath.
Lolley says that she speaks up for her mother, for other nursing home residents and for families like hers, and that she’s “never felt a greater purpose or greater calling.”
This article grew out of our effort to collect stories of people with loved ones in nursing homes. Share your story.