With no-visitor policies in nursing and assisted-living homes, families are getting creative 

  • Matt O’Connor of the Springfield Kiltie Band plays for Leeds Linda Manor resident Michael Ahearn on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2020. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Matt O’Connor of the Springfield Kiltie Band plays for Leeds Linda Manor resident Michael Ahearn on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2020. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Emily Dube and her grandmother, Adele Yankowski. Adele lives at the Lathrop Home in Northampton. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO  

Staff Writer
Published: 3/19/2020 3:42:07 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Nursing homes, residential care facilities and assisted living facilities around the country have put substantial measures in place to protect their residents from exposure to the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. And while many families are worried about their loved ones feeling isolated and cut off, some are finding clever ways to deal with the lack of social contact.

Michael Ahearn, whose father, also named Michael Ahearn, is a resident at the nursing home at Linda Manor in Leeds, was able to visit his dad and break the news to him that they’d no longer be able to talk in-person because of the virus.

“I can bring a chair and sit outside your window,” Ahearn recalled telling his father. “He laughed.”

On St. Patrick’s Day, however, Ahearn showed up outside of his father’s window — along with nine other members of the Northampton St. Patrick’s Association and bagpiper Matt O’Connor of the Springfield Kiltie Band. O’Connor played two songs for the elder Ahearn, including “Danny Boy,” a favorite of his late wife’s.

“That meant the most to my father,” Ahearn said, noting that other residents cracked open their windows to hear the music. “As I look up,” he recalled, “I can see faces of residents. It turned into a great community event … The intention was just to wish my father a happy St. Patrick’s Day.”

Ahearn added that the others gathered made sure to keep their distance from one another and from his father’s window.

“We wouldn’t even shake hands with each other,” he said.

On Monday, the state Department of Public Health issued a memorandum to nursing homes and rest homes. Among the guidelines and directives: restricting all visits, with the exception of select compassionate care situations, including end-of-life situations; screening permitted visitors for fever or respiratory infection and requiring hand-sanitizing; suspending communal dining and internal and external group activities; and providing care to patients known or suspected to be sick with COVID-19 in a single-person room.

A number of facilities chose to put restrictions on visitors even before the memorandum was issued, including Linda Manor in Leeds. Athena Health Care Systems, which owns and operates Highview of Northampton in Leeds, chose to allow only those visiting residents with an end-of-life care plan at Highview of Northampton and in its other Massachusetts and Rhode Island locations. These restrictions were already in place in its Connecticut locations earlier, due to a state order.

“We did this voluntarily,” said Tim Brown, the director of marketing and communications for Athena Health Care Systems. “We want to maintain the health and safety of our residents and employees.”

Brown said that family members have been contacted about these visitation changes, but efforts have still been made to visit residents within the guidelines.

“People are getting creative,” Brown said, adding that alternative methods of visiting, such as Skype, are being set up at Athena’s facilities as well. 

As for employees, Brown said that everyone who enters gets their temperature taken and fills out a survey on a daily basis. And on Sunday, the company began regularly temperature-checking residents at its facilities as well.

Safety first

Sharon Burkett, 63, has lived at Highview of Northampton for almost a year and doesn’t mind the restrictions.

“If nothing, it’s kind of nicer,” she said, observing that the new directives have made the facility less busy.

She now speaks to her visitors via cellphone, she said, adding that she appreciates Highview’s efforts to keep its residents safe from the virus.

Michael Taylor, the executive director of the Christopher Heights of Northampton assisted living facility, said that, in keeping with state guidelines, “the only visitors allowed to come in are persons providing compassionate end-of-life care.” He noted that those entering the facility are given written questionnaires and have their temperature taken every day. Taylor also said that residents started getting their meals delivered to them on Tuesday.

At the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, visitation also has been restricted to compassionate care cases, a move that was put into place over the weekend. New admissions were suspended on Friday, and the screening of all personnel began on Saturday.

“We are taking an ‘all hands on deck’ approach to make sure our veterans are getting the best quality care and life enrichment they deserve during this difficult and uncertain time,” the home’s Superintendent Bennett Walsh said in a written statement. “We are doing everything possible to protect those who protected us.”

Crystal Cote-Stosz, the executive director of the Lathrop Home, a residential care facility in Northampton, noted daily temperature checks and questionnaires for her staff as well and said that, last Thursday, a no-visitor restriction was put into place there; all non-essential medical appointments were rescheduled. As at other facilities, there is an exception to the no-visitor policy for end-of-life situations, although those visitors are screened in the same manner as staff.

She said that family members are being urged to call and use video-chat platforms to visit with residents, and residents are being encouraged to write letters as part of the facility’s activity programs.

“It’s actually been very popular,” Cote-Stosz said of the letter-writing program.

Emily Dube regularly visited her 92-year-old grandmother, Adele Yankowski, until the visiting restrictions were put into place at Lathrop. Before the public health crisis, Yankowski received visits from family multiple times a day.

“We understand,” said Dube, but, “I think it’s harder on us than it is on her.”

Dube also said that the family still calls Yankowski several times a day.

“But it just doesn’t seem like enough,” she said.

Dube revealed plans for the family to sing “Happy Birthday” to Yankowski ​​​​​​ outside her window and make a poster on April 10, when she turns 93, should they still be unable to visit with her.

Meanwhile, residents began receiving meals in their rooms at Lathrop on Monday.

“This is something that should be taken very seriously,” said Cote-Stosz, adding that a shelter-in-place protocol is available in case someone falls ill with COVID-19 at the facility.

As for residents, Cote-Stosz said, “They are wondering how long this is going to last.”

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.

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