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Minnesota’s elder care facilities try to balance safety with mental health as COVID rises

By Peter Cox, Minnesota Public Radio News

As winter nears, long-term care facilities across the state are figuring out how to safely bring more visitors inside, while keeping the growing pandemic threat outside.  In doing so, the home operators are hoping to boost the mental health of residents.

Assisted living centers and others are in the first weeks of allowing indoor visits to residents, as mandated by federal guidelines. New guidance says homes must allow visitors inside if there are no cases in the last two weeks, and the community numbers are below a certain level of transmission.

“Really, almost from the beginning, when we had to close our doors to visitors, we’ve been anticipating this guidance and working on a comprehensive plan to welcome visitors back at our communities,” said Brett Anderson, senior vice president and chief ecosystem and operations officer for Ecumen, one of the largest nonprofit senior care companies in Minnesota.

Given recen

t high daily rates of COVID-19 cases in Minnesota, as well as increased daily death totals, homes have to figure out how the indoor visits happen safely.

While some feel they have the protocols in place to allow visitors into the rooms of residents, others are trying to move forward with a space set aside to avoid visitor movement throughout the home.

Anderson said Ecumen is considering, where possible, “dedicated spaces maybe near the front of the community, or in a different entrance, or maybe an open apartment that might be more convenient for families and residents and limit movement throughout the building.”

At Prairie Manor Care Center in Blooming Prairie, Minn., administrator Joe Mason said that over the summer outdoor visits were very popular, especially when there were more restrictions on visiting.

The nursing home has not had any COVID-19 cases in residents, Mason said, and while some staff have been found to have the virus, managers believe they caught it in screening and testing before it was passed on to residents. Prairie Manor Care Center does weekly staff testing.

Some COVID-19 infections are believed to come into long-term care and assisted living facilities through staff, especially if they are asymptomatic. Around 69 percent of the Minnesotans who have died after being infected with the coronavirus were residents of long-term care and assisted living facilities.

“There are restrictions, but we still allow people in,” Mason said. “It’s just they have to be approved by the resident, they have to be on a list. Not just anyone off the street can walk in under those circumstances.”

He said it’s been tough to keep up with all the changes to visitor policies, since the pandemic began, but residents seem happier with more personal contact with their outside world.

“A lot of them don’t do well with talking through a window or talking to an iPad. You know, when they’re already hard of hearing, and maybe you have poor eyesight, not good with technology, it just doesn’t quite do it,” Mason said.

Residents felt a loss of privacy when they met outside or talked through a window, Mason added. “With indoor visits, they can actually be alone in the room. And that’s making all the difference.”

Gayle Kvenvold, head of Leading Age Minnesota, which represents many senior living facilities in the state, said homes may customize visiting programs and they’re getting creative to keep people happy and healthy.

“The fact of the matter is we have to find the right balance between both, and that that’s going to be a daily challenge for us,” Kvenvold said.