Zoom Calls And Groceries Through A Gate: Connecting With Loved Ones In Nursing Homes Senior living facilities are limiting visitors as coronavirus cases continue to climb. Nearly 160 facilities in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia are reporting cases of the virus among residents and staff.
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Zoom Calls And Groceries Through A Gate: Connecting With Loved Ones In Nursing Homes

Zoom Calls And Groceries Through A Gate: Connecting With Loved Ones In Nursing Homes

Teresa Tomassoni and her dog say hello to grandmother Mary Brogi through a window of Brogi's assisted living home in Solomon's Island, Md. Courtesy of/Teresa Tomassoni hide caption

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Courtesy of/Teresa Tomassoni

Teresa Tomassoni visits her grandmother Mary Brogi several times a week at The Hermitage, an assisted living facility on Solomon's Island, Md. During her first visit, Tomassoni stood outside the building and looked through a ground floor window. She called her grandmother on a cell phone borrowed from a staff member.

"I got teary. It was emotional and I didn't expect that from myself," Tomassoni recalls. "It was just like this jolt of emotion, not being able to touch her, not being able to go inside."

Her grandmother, who is 85, has dementia. She moved into The Hermitage last month, after her family decided she needed a higher level of care. She has short-term memory loss and often forgets about the coronavirus outbreak — and why Tomassoni is on the other side of the window, and not inside visiting.

Tomassoni is grateful to the staff who make the window visits possible with her grandma. But she's worried that her big-hearted, funny grandmother is getting lonely, especially in a facility that's still new to her. That makes it extra hard to say goodbye when the time comes to end their conversation.

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"Sometimes she'll even open her arms as if she's about to give a big hug and then she'll make a muscle with both of her arms," Tomassoni says. "And I'll just say, 'Yeah, grandma, stay strong.'"

Senior living facilities have strict, often state-mandated rules to control who comes in and out, and many are stopping in-person social activities among residents, too — all in the hopes of minimizing potential spread of the coronavirus.

Ninety facilities in Maryland are reporting cases of the virus among residents or staff, and half of the outbreaks in Virginia are in elder care settings. Eleven facilities in the District have cases. Some outbreaks have been fatal: At Pleasant View Nursing Home in Mount Airy, Md, 24 residents have died after contracting the virus. At Canterbury Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center in Henrico County, Va, 45 residents have died.

Families are adjusting to this new, often frightening reality, staying connected through window panes, on phone calls and via video chats as they try to make decisions about health care for their loved ones.

A sign on the door of The Hermitage, where Teresa Tomassoni's grandmother Mary Brogi lives. Courtesy of/Teresa Tomassoni hide caption

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Courtesy of/Teresa Tomassoni

'Maybe We Should Just Go Get Him'

Samantha Foti's father-in-law John lives in an apartment at Falcons Landing, a senior living center in Sterling, Va. At least 12 residents tested positive for coronavirus there, and four of them have died.

That alarmed Foti.

"There's part of you that thinks, O.K., well, maybe we should just go get him," she says.

Her father-in-law, who is 79, ultimately stayed home. The family agreed that he'd be okay in his own apartment since the cases were in another part of the facility.

Many families are confronting similar questions, according to Bob Stephen, the vice president of caregiving at AARP.

"There is no one-size-fits-all answer," he says. "We've had people calling up, just asking folks, 'Should I bring my mom home?' And the answer is, well, we can't tell you that."

Stephen says families should begin with asking elderly relatives about their own preferences on moving or staying put — if they are able to weigh in. After that, he recommends families seek out advice from the medical staff who know elderly relative's needs best.

"You want to find out about exercise, feeding, any specific special care that they have," he says.

Then families will need to consider their own capacity to support those needs. Stephen notes that there are fewer options for home care help nowadays given the coronavirus. Moving a loved one home can be a major challenge and can pose a higher risk to their health than keeping them in place.

One thing that made a difference to Foti is knowing that Falcons Landing has on-site medical staff, which her father-in-law wouldn't have access to at her home. Several weeks ago, he had a high blood-pressure spike and needed care urgently, in the middle of the night. He spent two nights at a hospital before returning to his apartment, where he is under the care of doctors at the facility.

"That was a really big eye-opener for us to have to try to facilitate his care," she says.

Phone Calls, Zoom Sessions And Groceries Through A Gate

With in-person contact impossible, many families are turning to technology to stay connected to loved ones in senior living centers. Like Tomassoni, many worry that the pandemic is a particularly lonely time for older adults.

Susan Silver Levy's parents, Irene and Bernie Silver, live in Goodwin House Bailey's Crossroads, an independent living facility in Falls Church. She used to visit them multiple times a week, often bringing her parents' favorite groceries, like English muffins and marmalade.

"We'd worked into a pretty comfortable rhythm, probably too comfortable," Levy says. "I swear, the minute they were out of peanut butter, my dad would call and say, 'Well, we're out of peanut butter,' and I'd go running over there."

Susan Levy (front, second from left) and her family pose for a selfie with parents Irene and Bernie Silver (center, back). Courtesy of/Susan Levy hide caption

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Courtesy of/Susan Levy

Now, those rhythms have changed. Her mom, Irene Silver, says they talk on the phone, mostly, but they've also explored video chatting, too.

"Sometimes we get together on Zoom," she says. "I think that's what it's called."

Many local senior living centers are helping set residents up with the technology they need to see their families virtually. A staff member helped the Silvers download Zoom onto their computer. On Solomon's Island, Tomassoni's grandmother Mary recently used an iPad for the first time to video chat with relatives. And Samantha Foti and her family FaceTime with her father-in-law John most days at lunch time.

But not everything can be done online. Susan Levy has a health condition that puts her in a high-risk group. She isn't able to go to the grocery store anymore for supplies to supplement facility-provided meals. Instead, she's relying on what she calls "a very intricate bartering system" among local friends and neighbors to keep her parents' pantry stocked.

"Whenever somebody I know is going someplace, they let me know, and I ask them to pick things up," she says. "Eventually, somebody will help out and get things to my parents."

That means Levy's friends and other family members drop off groceries at the gate of her parents' complex to be sanitized by staff members.

And it's a similar case for Foti's family, who are also passing groceries for John through a gate. Recently, he sent Easter baskets for his grandchildren out the same way.

'This, Too, Shall Pass'

Tomassoni, Levy and Foti all say they're grateful for the perspective their parents and grandparents bring to the pandemic.

Tomassoni's grandmother Mary, a retired public health nurse, still recognizes the seriousness and importance of words like "virus." In her more lucid moments, she worries about the impact of the pandemic on other people, especially those who have lost their jobs.

Mary Brogi moved into an assisted living facility last month after her family decided she needed a higher level of care. Courtesy of/Teresa Tomassoni hide caption

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Courtesy of/Teresa Tomassoni

She also gives her granddaughter advice about living through it.

"She's like, 'This, too, shall pass.' And she'll just say things like, 'You just keep breathing. You just stay healthy,'" Tomassoni says.

Levy, too, says she's been inspired by the way her parents are dealing with the pandemic.

"They don't call them the greatest generation for nothing," she says. "They're very good at being flexible and understanding, giving up a few things for the greater good."

Her mother Irene is matter of fact about it all.

"The fact that we cannot see family members — it's a little difficult," she says. "But, you know, it's a problem that everybody else is facing, too."

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