As Alaska reopens, nursing homes stay closed to visitors. Here’s how families are staying connected.

A family testing out a new way to have contact at Wildflower Court. (Photo courtesy of Wildflower Court)

Alaska has lifted restrictions on businesses and some people are getting out more after the pandemic radically altered social life in March and April. But for nursing homes, there’s no set date for when families can safely reunite. The state has set up a task force to look into how to reintegrate visits. However, there’s still a lot of unknowns about when that’s going to happen. In the meantime, families are coping with the distance.

Jodi Mitchell’s brother, Donnie, lives at Wildflower Court, a nursing home in Juneau. She sees him at least once a week or more through a computer screen. Usually, it’s a big family gathering. On the Zoom conference, there were family from Hawaii and California. Mitchell called in from Juneau.

There was talk of the weather, the pandemic and what Donnie’s been up to. He hasn’t been winning at bingo, but he smiles at a joke a family member makes about the winning prize being a new car.

It’s been over three months since Mitchell has seen her brother in-person. Wildflower Court closed its door to visitors in early March, around the time COVID-19 outbreaks struck nursing homes in Washington state. Normally, Mitchell brings her brother home on the weekends. He likes helping her pick weeds in the garden and going on shopping trips. It’s precious time they have together.

“As soon as they allow you out, believe me, I’m going to come and get you,” Mitchell tells her brother on the Zoom call.

“Oh, gosh. I can’t wait until that happens,” he replies.

At 57 years-old, Mitchell’s brother is one of the younger residents at Wildflower Court. He lives there because of short term memory loss. Mitchell says the pandemic has been disruptive to his routine. He has his ups and downs.

Wildflower Court has the option to visit through a window, but Mitchell’s not sure if that would be a good fit for her brother.

“If I had gone there and he saw me, he wouldn’t be able to understand why he can’t just come with me,” Mitchell said.

Last week, there were only nine cases of COVID-19 reported in nursing homes in Alaska and all of those cases had recovered. But that number jumped up over the weekend, after a cluster of tests came back positive in Anchorage.

It’s unknown when nursing homes can safely allow families back in. So, facilities are having to come up with solutions to help close the emotional gap. That can look like video chats, like the one Mitchell has with her brother, window visits or holding hands through an arm-shaped hole.

Ruth Johnson, who oversees operations at Wildflower Court, says the nursing home constructed the setup, which allows families to touch with a long disposable glove that covers the arm.

She says, of course keeping residents safe during the pandemic has been a major concern — so has the psychological toll of people not being able to see their families in their typical way. It’s something that hits home for Johnson. Her father had to go into a nursing facility in Washington state in the spring — where later, dozens of people contracted the virus.

“I feel like my father may not die of COVID, but he may be part of the collateral damage: The isolation and loneliness … He has not seen anyone he loves in three months.”

Johnson says this is why she cares so much: She knows how Juneau families are feeling.

Not all nursing homes are equipped for video calls. But Wildflower Court was able to get video chats up and running in a matter of weeks. People donated electronic devices and staff set up a way for families to schedule time to talk.

Johnson wondered if communicating like this would be confusing for residents who can have difficulty recognizing faces or adjusting to sudden change. But overall, people seem to be adapting. She recalls a resident she saw recently with an iPad.

“She’s just of that age where she wouldn’t have used the technology,” Johnson said. “And she was sitting there with a pair of earphones on, plugged into the device, it was a private conversation, with just the most beautiful smile on her face talking to a family member.”

Jackie Pata says that’s been her experience, too. On video calls to Wildflower Court, her mom looks happy and calm. At first, she was reluctant to try video chatting. She worried her mom wouldn’t understand why she couldn’t be there in-person, and it would be upsetting.

But as social distancing measures continued, she decided to try it out. There were some technical issues when they first tried to connect.

“At that moment, my emotions got so real because I felt like, I’m so close to be able to talk to my mom. And now, I’m not going to be able to and that fear, that fear that you get was, like, overwhelming,” Pata said. “I realized in that moment how much I missed her and how much I needed to talk to her.”

But they were able to work it out, and she saw her mom for the first time in weeks.

Pata thinks her mother could sense that she was nervous and a little flustered. So her mom did what good mothers do: She says her mom told her exactly what she needed to hear in that moment.

“‘I love you. I think about you guys all the time. I miss you everyday. It hurts inside how much I miss you,’ and then she’d say, ‘But it’s all going to be OK. We’re going to be together again.'”

Pata says communicating like this has revealed a “blessing in disguise.” Her mom has been able to see grandkids from across the country on video calls. That’s not something that regularly happened before, but it’s something she hopes continues after nursing homes are able to welcome families back inside again.

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