As COVID-19 restrictions are phased out, those who live and work in local assisted living facilities say they are experiencing better days following a trying 15 months that has inflicted disproportionate physical and mental health challenges on their communities.
For Faribault Senior Living resident Joe Skodje, who turned 100 in March, those impacts included the loss of in-person visits with his son.
He said it's been difficult without that usual connection and support, but as more residents have received vaccine doses and cases continue dropping, those visits have resumed, initially by appointment only, a format that has since been replaced with unlimited visits while wearing masks.
“It’s great,” Skodje noted of being able to see his son again following the prolonged periods of isolation he faced over the last 15 months.
Fellow Faribault Senior Living resident Lucy Meshke is also seeing better days. Meshke, who has a son and two daughters who sometimes visit, now goes shopping with her family, moments she cherishes.
“I really get kind of lonesome without anyone coming,” she said.
For Valleyview of Owatonna Executive Director Steve Friederich, it has been good to have a more open dining concept following COVID-19 restrictions that necessitated meal deliveries to individual rooms. He noted the restrictions had been difficult for everyone at the facility, which specializes in helping those who are low-income and have mental health challenges. Friederich said that toll was especially felt for residents whose families played a major role in their lives. Now, Valleyview staff notice residents laughing more again and having better days. Also, there were no COVID-19 breakouts at the facility during the pandemic.
“We are proud of our staff and of our residents,” Friederich said.
Faribault Senior Living resident Sharon Cruikshank noted she is now going to restaurants and enjoys doing so without having to quarantine after.
“I’m glad that people can come and visit me,” she said.
Those sentiments are shared by Faribault Senior Living Director of Health Services Candice Ahlman. Both her and Executive Director Sarah Valentyn said they are already seeing physical health improving for residents who were previously declining earlier in the pandemic.
“You can see their smiles in their eyes," Ahlman said, "even behind a mask."
Senior Living staff: Remaining COVID-19 restrictions should end
Valentyn and Ahlman were forced to immediately adjust following the onset of the pandemic. Staff started personal protective equipment and masks, and stringent visitor requirements were implemented to meet Minnesota Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. From March to May of 2020, seven residents died, a number Valentyn and Ahlman said was due to the mental toll of the pandemic and associated restrictions.
Staff also felt that stress. Some days led to feelings of anger and visible emotion due to the situation. Many residents left the facility and moved in with their families to avoid prolonged periods of isolation, and some staff left due to the toll of the pandemic. Ahlman added that some residents compared isolation, with no social activities and eating alone in their rooms, to being in a prison. Many reportedly began taking depression and anxiety medications.
“They didn’t want to live like that,” Valentyn said. “It took an emotional roller coaster on everybody. There was a lot of anger; there was a lot of crying.”
Those comments were backed by a September article in AARP. According to the article, isolation and loneliness are associated with a 50% increased chance of developing dementia, 32% spike in strokes, and a nearly fourfold increased chance of death among heart failure patients.
Even with the improved situation, however, Ahlman said residents are still expressing frustration: They were excited to be vaccinated to protect themselves against the disease and not have to wear face masks anymore, but still must do so within the facility in most circumstances when outside of their rooms to comply with sometimes contradicting MDH and CDC guidelines, even though masking requirements have been eliminated in many other settings.
Valentyn wants the mask mandate to end for residents and staff to no longer need to wear goggles and masks.
Ahlman and Valentyn say the mental toll the pandemic and associated restrictions placed on residents leaves them with mixed feelings on whether the state and federal restrictions had a positive net impact on people who were living in assisted living facilities. To Ahlman, the restrictions were worth it from a nursing standpoint to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks but didn’t need to last as long as they have. She did not support the banning of visitors to assisted living facilities. To her, as someone tasked with ensuring patient rights, the decision to ban visits stripped human rights from residents who had earned the right to have a say in their lives.
To Valentyn, state and federal guidelines could have been “looser” and taken further into account the need for residents to socialize.
“That socialization piece of it for me was really hard to accept," she said. and the depression that I saw — the residents moving out and people passing away just from depression."
Restrictions began lifting at Faribault Senior Living in January. The dining room was opened once again early this year, and residents restarted activities while wearing masks. The final round of vaccinations for residents came in March. Since then, guidelines have loosened to allow residents to participate in activities away from campus without having to quarantine for two weeks. In one instance, a resident was able to see her great-grandchild, a four-generation photo made possible by the loosening of restrictions.
Now, even residents who are initially hesitant to leave the facility feel more comfortable. The frustration some residents and families initially shared over COVID-19 restrictions has dissipated. Ahlman noted the facility has received letters, emails and personal thank-yous from residents on protecting them during the pandemic. Faribault Senior Living LLC has reportedly not lost any residents to COVID-19 and only had a few cases.
“You can see that … anxiety of, ‘I might lose my life if I leave,’ has definitely diminished,” Ahlman said.