The Coronavirus Has Made Taking Care Of Elders Uniquely Difficult For Families And The Staffs At Senior Facilities

When Irene Pearson was placed in a wheelchair a year ago and had to leave her independent living apartment for another on a lower level, she wasn’t exactly happy about the move. Neither were her sons, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Sacramento resident Vince Pearson waves to his mother, Irene, outside of her assisted living residence in south Sacramento. Pearson would visit his mother every day, but once because of the coronavirus, would have to do it from her outside patio only. Senior communities have had a difficult time making sure their residents, staff and family members are safe during the pandemic. (Photo courtesy Vince Pearson)

Ms. Pearson, 90, lived at Greenhaven Place, a south Sacramento independent and assisted living community, until her passing this week while in hospice there. While seniors over the age of 65 have been deemed vulnerable to the coronavirus, Ms. Pearson did not have the virus. Her health, however, was hampered by the ensuing shutdowns and social distancing restrictions.

Being on the first floor of the building allowed Ms. Pearson’s sons, Vince and Kevin, to “visit” and check up on her. Because they were not allowed into the building, they communicated through the sliding glass door of her patio.

“Initially it was just waving,” shared Vince Pearson, the son who moved Ms. Pearson to Sacramento from Chicago in July 2018.

He’d be on the patio as early as 8:00 a.m. sitting in a chair, drinking his coffee as they talked on their cell phones. He’d come at night as well, staying until almost midnight to make sure she was getting to sleep. His brother also came in from out of town to relieve him, as did church members and other friends.

Pearson is used to visiting his mother every day. She wasn’t particularly fond of the food served by the staff at Greenhaven Place, so he often cooked her fish or brought her pepperoni pizza or the chicken strips from Chick-Fil-A that she liked. Her doctor was OK with it as long as she was actually consuming something. Pearson and friends from St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church would sit with her and encourage her to eat.

“We were involved. We were there,” Pearson shared.

Then COVID-19 happened.

Love And Care From A Distance

“It just came to an abrupt halt,” Pearson said. “A letter came out and there was a phone call and that was it. No more entry into the building as of that Saturday at 1 o’clock unless you were a nurse or medically essential personnel. As a family, you think you’ll have time to visit, you think, ‘Let’s go see mom or dad before it shuts down,’ but no, it was that quick.”

Pearson also spoke with his mother’s caretakers from the patio, shouting health-related questions through the door. He eventually “went old school” and purchased walkie talkies so that he could communicate with them.

“I didn’t want them touching mom’s phone because of the whole COVID-19. I was just trying to relieve (points of risk). That turned out to work well,” he said.

Sadly, the view on the other side of the glass became disturbing. Pearson noticed his mother nodding off more frequently and losing weight rapidly. Even with staff looking in on her, he says, she’d eat when they were there, but she’d abandon her plate if they had to leave the room for something.

“At one point we were looking at her and we could tell she was losing weight,” Pearson shared. “That’s when it struck us, ‘Oh my goodness, this building has shut down, everything’s shut down because of COVID-19 and the subplot here is going to be that if something happens, seniors won’t have their families there.’ The staff is there, of course, but it makes all the difference when you can have your family there.”

Yvonne Holm, Greenhaven Place’s Health and Wellness Director, is mindful of the impact isolation can have on seniors.

“Family members, for some of the residents, that’s all they have and to take that away from them, that creates more trauma for the resident and we don’t need that. They’re closed up in their rooms most of the day,” Ms. Holm said.

Ms. Pearson had been getting physical therapy four times a week and was seeing results. Due to the COVID-19 mandates, her therapist was banned from coming into her building.

“They’re not considered essential, believe it or not,” Vince Pearson said.
To his mom, though, therapy was essential.

“It was to the point where she was sitting all day and not getting any movement and we think that led to some of the decline,” he added.
The Pearsons decided to have their mom go into hospice care on-site so that there would be “more eyes on her.” Ms. Pearson’s family got to see her in her final days as Greenhaven Place’s staff compassionately allowed them to come in, following strict guidelines.

“Every time we go to the building we must have a mask, get our temperature checked and there’s a questionnaire that they have at the front desk that we must fill out,” Pearson shared.

“It doesn’t get sticky for me, because I’ve been there,” Ms. Holm said. “I know having family around is very, very important.”

With the exception of those in hospice, there are no exceptions.

“We don’t want to take the chance,” Ms. Holm said of restricting movement in and out of the facility.

They have to be diligent, she says, even when they get pushback from the residents themselves.

Some of the more “independent” ones have insisted that nobody is going to tell them what to do or keep them from doing the things they normally would.

“Our administrator has had some serious talks with our residents,” Ms. Holm said.

There are now “Stop, Do Not Enter” signs outside the building and locks to outside doors were changed to keep families from sneaking into the building.

“That wasn’t us,” Pearson assured laughingly.

Staffers, outside caregivers and first responders all come in one main door. Everyone who enters has to adhere to the same precautions.

“That’s the way we can catch a lot of it,” Ms. Holm said.

She recalls stopping a nurse attempting to enter without a mask. She’d left it outside in her car.

“OK, go get it, then you can come in,” Ms. Holm recounts telling the nurse.
Pearson said he appreciated the measures staff at Greenhaven Place have taken to keep the virus from hitting its residents and those that serve them.

The concern is real. Yolo County officials announced an outbreak at the Stollwood Convalescent Hospital in Woodland last week. Thirty-five people there, 23 residents and 12 staffers, tested positive for COVID-19, including one resident who has since died. ACC Senior Services, that owns and operates three local assisted living, senior apartment complexes and skilled nursing facilities, announced earlier this month that an employee at one of their locations had tested positive after showing no symptoms. ACC also faced concerns from residents and their families over plans to use a section in one of its facilities to house those who have tested positive for COVID-19.

“We have had no outbreaks,” Ms. Holm shared. “We’ve sent people out, but it wasn’t for COVID-19 at all. We’ve had the regular ‘normal’ stuff, people falling and hitting their heads, they’ve gone out.”

Early on in the pandemic, one resident came down with the flu. He tested negative for the coronavirus and upon return to Greenhaven Place, went into a 14-day isolation. The isolation is in keeping with their new policy for anyone who goes out to the hospital for any reason.

“Until we know what’s going on, they’re doing full isolations,” Ms. Holms said.

Greenhaven Place offers independent living and assisted living. Residents, who can move on their own, are allowed to come outside their rooms to exercise. Family members can also drop off food and other essential items that staff clears and then distributes to the intended recipient.

The facility is following corporate, federal and state guidelines to combat the spread of the virus.

“It gets a little bit overwhelming of what to do and how to do it, but you just have to work through that and figure out what’s going to be best for your facility. So far what we’re doing has been working for us,” Ms. Holm said.

Having befriended other families while out on the patio to see his own mother, Pearson says he feels for those whose loved ones weren’t on the first floor, like his.

“They haven’t been able to lay eyes on their loved ones for six weeks now. This is a tough, tough deal right now,” he said.

Ms. Holm said their activities director has been using technology to help families stay connected. Families can call in and ask to “see” their loved one and the staffer can go into their apartments and use her phone or can do a Zoom set up, for residents to have longer interaction with the outside world.

“Our staff, they’re stretched a little bit, but we have staff members who are working doubles and who have worked six days in a row. We have some really great staff here. Nobody’s been out sick, so that’s a good thing,” Ms. Holm shared.

The Pearsons have also been urged to stay well, to not forget to take care of themselves while trying to ensure their mothers’ comfort and wellbeing. Vince Pearson admits he spent most of the last few weeks physically exhausted. His mom, he said, earned their efforts.

“I got tired, but I did not get tired of the cause that I’m doing. I have never tired of what I was called to do at this moment in taking care of my mother.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, staffers at Greenhaven Place have had several in-service sessions on infection control.

“All the caregivers here are not CNAs, so they don’t know. They’ve never had to deal with anything like this,” Ms. Holm said.

“They have learned very quickly to think of everything, not just your hands and your face, but your clothes and your shoes,” she continued.

They’re also urged to use measures when coming home from the facility as well. Ms. Holms says what’s happening now should have long-term impact.
“A lot of people here, or people period, in health care facilities that are not acute care, I think they’re going to change how they see things and how they do things,” she said.

“This has been a wakeup call or a lot of people.”

By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer