The human touch: Amherst nursing home provides families avenue to see loved ones

  • Joanne Dolan greets her mother, Helen Besko during a visit at the Center For Extended Care at Amherst. Dolan was waiting for her two other sisters to arrive. Next to Helen Besko is Sherry Champagne, the director of activities. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Joanne Dolan gets teary eyes while visiting her mother Helen Besko during a visit at the Center For Extended Care at Amherst. Dolan was waiting for her two other sisters to arrive. Next to Helen Besko is Sherry Champagne, the director of activities. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hilary Woodcock visits with her husband Chris Woodcock at the Center For Extended Care at Amherst. It was the first time they had seen each other for over a month. Hilary was hoping to show Chris, who has Parkinson's disease, how to use Face Time so they can communicate more. Next to Chris is Sherry Champagne, the director of activities. . STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bonnie Druschel, Cynthia Neill and Joanne Dolan make hearts to tell their mother, Helen Besko, they love her during a visit at the Center For Extended Care at Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 4/17/2020 11:40:29 AM
Modified: 4/17/2020 11:40:16 AM

AMHERST — During a normal visit to the Center for Extended Care, Helen Besko’s three daughters would comb her hair, do her nails and give her other comforts to sustain her emotional and physical well-being.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, and the vulnerability Besko and other residents of the nursing home face from the illness, those in-person interactions are no longer permitted.

Even without being able to give their mother the benefits of human touch, Joanne Dolan, Bonnie Druschel and Cynthia Neill this week, for the first time in more than a month, got to again be close to her, separated only by a door’s pane of glass.

“It means so much to us, but it means so much more to her,” Dolan said of this week’s visit, in which the three siblings could again see and talk to their mom.

As she peered through the doorway at her mother, who was holding an electronic toy cat that she can treat as a real pet, Dolan said she recognizes how much her mother is missing her daughters.

“Human contact is so important,” Dolan said. “Looking into her eyes, she was so happy to see us.”

Their visit was made possible through a new program that David Ianacone, administrator for the University Drive facility, began this week in which families can reserve times to drop by to see residents.

Ianacone said the visits, which last about 15 minutes, come as a godsend for those who have been unable to see their family members in person since he sent a March 10 letter advising them about the new safety protocols.

“We understand that it’s been difficult for families to be satisfied with just a phone call, a postcard, a letter, or even Skype and FaceTime,” Ianacone said. “There’s nothing like seeing a loved one.”

The Center for Extended Care has between 110 and 115 residents spread out in three areas of the building: long-term care, dementia and short-term rehabilitation units. 

With two days each week set aside for the visits, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and spaced out half an hour to promote appropriate social distancing, the residents are brought to two entrances. So far, nearly 30 families have taken advantage of the opportunity. Ianacone said that he anticipates they will continue to do so in the weeks ahead.

Chairs are set up in covered vestibules outside these entrances so that even in inclement weather the visits can take place. In addition, cellphones can be given to residents so they can converse better with their families through the door.

Like the Besko children, Hilary Woodcock was able to drop by to see her husband, Chris, who has Parkinson’s disease. At one time she was visiting him at least six days a week, but since the pandemic, she has not been able to anymore.

“It was great since we hadn’t seen each other in over a month,” Woodcock said. “It was a bit strange but better than nothing.”

She is setting up conversations with her husband on FaceTime and hopes he might be able to use this smartphone app, despite his physical limitations.

Despite the worries about the illness, Ianacone said so far the site has not had any COVID-19 cases. Various precautions are appearing to work, from frequent hand washing, wearing of personal protective equipment and temperature checks for employees, and coordination with Cooley Dickinson Hospital on rapid testing for anyone who comes down with symptoms. The residents are also not participating in any large group activities. This gives families some peace of mind during the stressful times.

“They’re quite relieved when they learn we’re OK, that we haven’t had any outbreak,” Ianacone said.

The site is also well prepared in other ways. Its director of nurses, Lauren Pieciak, is a certified infection control preventionist. Should anyone get the coronavirus, the site has a negative pressure isolation room, containing air that doesn’t exit the room or risk spread to others, and a wing has bedrooms for others to be isolated.

As frontline workers, Ianacone said he thanks families who have been sending lunches and desserts to his staff, as well as area businesses, like the Domino’s in Hadley, which delivered 25 pizzas. 

Woodcock said her husband is frail and wouldn’t fare well if the disease gets into the building. “I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that they can keep the virus out of there,” Woodcock said.

Dolan said the nursing home has been stellar and keeps families up to date on what is happening.

“They’re doing a great job and we feel very confident,” Dolan said. “I pray every day that this thing will stop. That’s what gets me through.”

Dolan adds that this time of being physically separated has given her an opportunity to appreciate the interactions with her mother all the more. Her advice is for other families to also take advantage of the ability to visit.

“Go see your loved ones, make the effort, make the phone calls, because they miss you,” Dolan said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at

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