‘You miss the hugs’

Published 8:24 pm Friday, June 26, 2020

Nursing homes start in-person outdoor visits


After more than three months, people can finally visit their loved ones in nursing homes without a window in between them.

Starting last week, the Minnesota Department of Health outlined new guidelines for long-term care facilities for outdoor visits. All residents and visitors must wear masks, and must maintain six feet of distance. No physical contact — such as hugging, kissing or holding hands — is allowed, and all visitors must be screened for COVID-19 signs or symptoms.

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Scot Spates, administrator and CEO of the St. John’s Lutheran Community campuses in Albert Lea, said he and his team worked quickly to figure out how to offer the visits, as they knew they would have residents’ family members wanting to see their loved ones as soon as possible. He said he first got the guidelines in the afternoon June 18, and by the end of the day June 19, his team had outlined how to proceed. They wanted to be able to offer the in-person visits for Father’s Day weekend last week.

Spates said the St. John’s facilities have spaces marked outside for visits, and that families could sign up for 30-minute visits with their loved ones. Extra cleaning will take place in between visits.

While he knows it’s good for residents to have those connections with families, Spates said the top priority is to keep everyone — residents, staff and visitors — as safe as possible.

“It is really going to be important for families to follow the guidelines,” he said last week, prior to the outdoor visits starting. “The restrictions we have to date have really worked well. These outdoor visits can work well if people take the guidelines seriously.”

For Albert Lea resident Diane Westlund, who had only seen her mother through a window at Thorne Crest Senior Living Community in Albert Lea or via FaceTime from March until this week, it has been an adjustment.

“It would be nice to give her a hug,” Westlund said Monday.

Thorne Crest started scheduling outdoor visits Wednesday this week, and Westlund was able to schedule a visit with her mother that day.

She said everything was set up well, and she enjoyed talking with her mother and seeing her without glass in between them.

“It’s not quite the same as being right there in her room visiting, but it was OK,” Westlund said. “It was good to see her.”

Sue Callahan of Albert Lea also got to visit with her mother Wednesday at Thorne Crest. The last time she got to visit her in person was March 5, the week of Callahan’s birthday. Callahan’s mother-in-law is also a resident at Thorne Crest, and Callahan said the isolation has been a bit tough for her as she’s used to being able to go out and about, whereas Callahan’s mother is in a wheelchair.

Callahan’s mother moved to Albert Lea from Chicago in 2017, so the only people she knows in town are her daughter, son-in-law and Callahan’s mother-in-law. The two Thorne Crest residents were used to visiting with each other, but haven’t been able to since the coronavirus restrictions came into place. Callahan said she and her husband planned to visit her mother-in-law on Saturday.

Callahan’s daughter had a baby May 8, and not being able to let the baby’s great-grandmothers hold the baby or see it in person has been difficult. While Callahan said the physical distance has been hard, she knows why it has to happen, especially because she used to work at Thorne Crest.

“It’s a double-edged sword for me, because I understand why we have to do this, but it’s hard,” she said. “I don’t want to see residents or staff get anything.

“I really appreciate everything they’re doing. … We’re all in this together.”

Callahan said it has been difficult sometimes for her mother to understand what’s going on, as she has some slight dementia and hearing loss. It’s not always easy to speak with her on the phone, but they have found hearing aids for her that are Bluetooth-compatible, so when they’ve used Skype to talk on an iPad it has helped.

“It’s different,” Callahan said. “You just have to discover different ways of doing things, I think.”

When she did visit her mother in person Wednesday, it was also a bit harder to hear her mother due to both of them wearing masks, but she said it was still nice to be able to get together. 

Cindy Bodensteiner of Albert Lea was able to visit with both of her parents Thursday at Thorne Crest. The couple moved into the facility June 1. Prior to the move, Bodensteiner said she visited her parents often.

“It was a big change,” she said. “I went from being able to pop in and visit whenever I wanted to.”

Bodensteiner said her parents were quarantined for about two weeks when they first moved to Thorne Crest. While she helped move their things there, she has yet to see their apartment. Until this week, they’ve kept in touch over the phone.

“You miss the hugs,” she said. “It’s a little bit of a challenge. … It’s a challenging time for everybody right now, but I have to give the health care workers credit.”

Her parents have told Bodensteiner that the staff at Thorne Crest have been great about keeping things upbeat for the residents, and Callahan said Thorne Crest staff have brought in their pets for residents to visit with, acting as a kind of therapy for them.

While having to schedule visits is a big change, Bodensteiner takes comfort in the fact her parents are together. They had been apart for about a month prior to moving to Thorne Crest because her father was in a physical rehab facility.

“That was the one bright spot — that they’re together,” she said. “They missed each other.”

Larry Roerish of Northwood and his sister, Suzanne Worrell, of Atlanta were able to visit their mother Thursday afternoon as well. The in-person visits being possible happened to line up with Worrell being in town for a visit.

Roerish was used to visiting their mother three to four times a week, so going from that to only talking through a window over the phone has been challenging. Worrell has been speaking with their mother at least once a week using FaceTime.

The changes have been difficult for their mother, as well.

“During this lockdown, it’s been tough on my mom,” Roerish said. “That isolation has been tough mentally for her.”

While he has been able to drop things off for her at the door and they’ve visited via the phone, they miss that human contact, Roerish said.

Visiting their mother Thursday went well, but he said their mother was a bit distracted between having to wear a mask and seeing everything going on around them outside with the other visits. There were times it was difficult to understand her due to the six feet of distance as well.

“I appreciate all the work and efforts the Thorne Crest staff goes through to do those things,” he said. “I appreciate the fact that it’s still a cautionary time for them. … They made it work.”

On Tuesday, Spates said the visits at St John’s had been going well.

“We’ve had a lot of visitors and I think that overall it’s going well. Many of the families have expressed how much they appreciate the opportunity to connect with their spouse, mom or dad,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the day when the COVID virus is behind us.”

Callahan echoed his sentiments of wanting the pandemic gone.

“It’s so sad because it feels like this virus is stealing so much time from us,” she said. “It’s taking time that we’re not going to get back with them.”


About Colleen Harrison

Colleen Harrison is the photo editor at the Albert Lea Tribune. She does photography and writes general-assignment stories.

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