The Forgotten Victims of the COVID-19 Pandemic: How Seniors Are Coping With Isolation

By: Jennifer Korn

At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, nursing homes around the country went into lockdown to protect those most susceptible to the virus. Unfortunately, several reports suggest that the restrictions meant to safeguard the elderly have created a different problem: a new mental health crisis.

 

In March, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) issued guidance urging nursing homes to forbid visitations and non-essential personnel.  The report advised that “facilities should restrict visitation of all visitors and non-essential health care personnel, except for certain compassionate care situations, such as an end-of-life situation.” CMS also directed nursing homes to cancel communal dining and group activities.

 

“Residents really didn’t realize the seriousness of it until it came to our facility,” said Jamie Wildman, former recreation assistant at Tolstoy Foundation Rehabilitation and Nursing Center.

 

In a statement to the Rockland County Times, Dorothy Corbett, licensed nursing home administrator and acting CEO of Tolstoy Foundation, said when COVID-19 began to impact nursing homes, “we explained to the residents and families exactly what was happening.”

 

From March until mid-Sept., Tolstoy Foundation did not permit face-to-face visits.

 

“Not being able to actually spend time with families hit them hard,” said Wildman.

 

However, Wildman and Corbett said Tolstoy Foundation took crucial measures to keep residents connected to their families.

 

“We made a point of keeping our patients/residents and families in contact by use of facetime, window visits and encouraging phone calls,” said Corbett.

 

Wildman and Corbett both expressed that staff members have worked hard to keep residents in good spirits. “I feel that the recreation department is definitely a major part of maintaining smiles and uplifting moods,” said Wildman.

 

“We increased our one on one time with patients/residents,” said Corbett. “This has worked well to mitigate the impact of the restrictions placed on our facility.”

 

Although Wildman and Corbett said they do not believe residents at Tolstoy Foundation are facing a mental health crisis from the isolation caused by the pandemic, several government centers have addressed the issue.

 

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), loneliness in nursing homes is a common reality that predates the COVID-19 pandemic. Some studies have shown that loneliness is a risk factor for recurrent strokes, Alzeimer’s disease, cognitive decline, obesity, weakened immunity and mortality.

 

Visitations and meaningful social interactions are known to decrease loneliness in nursing home residents, but government-issued guidelines made most activities impossible. For residents struggling with dementia or cognitive impairment, the absence of visits has been especially damaging. According to the NCBI, families may fear that their loved ones will no longer recognize them without regular visits.

 

In September, CMS released an update lightening the restrictions that were placed in March. A statement in the report reads: “While CMS guidance has focused on protecting nursing home residents from COVID-19, we recognize that physical separation from family and other loved ones has taken a physical and emotional toll on residents. Residents may feel socially isolated, leading to increased risk for depression, anxiety, and other expressions of distress.”

 

The report also touched on how the restrictions may have confused or upset residents with cognitive impairment or other disabilities. The report states that CMS understands the importance of visitations and how influential familial support is to residents.

 

“As we are updated to changing mandates, we are able to increase social activity with our patients/residents, enable in-person visiting with proper protocols in place,” said Corbett.

 

While virtual visits and phone calls have helped many in isolation, three Rockland seniors found their own source of strength through painting. Jacqueline Fiore, of West Nyack, A.H. Gunther, of Blauvelt, and Joyce Kanyuk, of New City, were selected to be a part of a virtual exhibition called “NEW BEGINNINGS”.

 

AARP sponsored the exhibition, which was created by Holly Gordon, the creative curator of Islip Arts Museum. She developed a visual story that voices the experiences of seniors. The exhibition includes the art and narrations of 100 juried works, which were selected from nearly 600 submissions, and featured New York residents aged between 50 to 90 plus years.

 

“When I put paintbrush to the canvas, I’m at a new beginning,” said Fiore. “As an empty nester and no longer a caretaker, my paintings embody a rebirth. It is ecstasy of this new moment in time. ‘Mother and child’ was inspired by my new role as a grandma, filled with new perceptions and new beginnings.”

 

“I am late to painting; I was a newspaper photographer and writer/editor for 42 years,” said Gunther. “I have painted perhaps 180 works since 2014. ‘Imagination’ in this exhibit reflects staying at home during this time of virus. The colorful bars are the walls in the house to be overcome.”

 

“Unable to paint from live models due to the pandemic, I went through my figure studies, throwing some out, and looking for inspiration,” said Kanyuk. “Amazing things began to happen.  A whole new series, a whole new beginning opened up for me.”

 

NCBI offers a list of ways to improve the quality of life for seniors affected by COVID-19 restrictions. The list of suggestions include the use of name tags, video calls, frequent phone calls, window visits, handwritten letters, virtual religious services, and stuffed animals.

 

“We all watch out for each other,” said Wildman.