Our communities are hurting in many ways, but it is hard to imagine a deeper angst than being separated from a husband, wife, father, mother or other loved one who is isolated in an assisted living facility and living with Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia. As the executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association Nebraska Chapter, I hear from constituents about their sadness, their fear, their feeling of helplessness as this unfolds before them. I also experience these feelings personally, as I too am a caregiver with a loved one living in an assisted living facility “locked down” to outside visitors.
My mom last saw my dad in person on March 10. On July 26, we were able to have a socially distanced visit with him on an outside patio for about an hour. Unfortunately, the next day his community was forced to lock down again due to concerns about a potential COVID exposure. While we were grateful for this short visit, it is difficult to find joy in that experience, as the visit and subsequent lockdown contributed to further confusion to my dad. Window visits and FaceTime calls have been suggested as an option for families separated from their vulnerable loved ones. However, those too can cause additional confusion for dad (and many others), and they do not provide the gentle conversation of being with a loved one in person.
More than 40% of the residents in nursing homes, assisted living and other residential facilities have some form of Alzheimer’s or other dementia. There are growing concerns that social isolation among people with dementia has contributed to individual decline. My father’s decline since March 10 has been remarkable. This separation has also increased stress among family caregivers who cannot assess the health of their loved ones.
What, if anything, can we do to support those living with dementia and those who are family caregivers? The only way to end social isolation is to ensure every long-term care community has access to rapid testing for all residents, staff and visitors. In May, the Alzheimer’s Association published Long-Term Care Policy Recommendations, which highlighted the need for rapid-turnaround testing to ensure COVID-19 does not spread in these settings. Although access to testing has increased, a lack of access to rapid, point-of-care testing equipment and supplies has made it difficult to reopen safely for visitors.
Nebraska’s senior care communities are working hard each day to provide a safe, healthy environment for some of our most vulnerable citizens. However, they are in need of the proper supplies, training and support to ensure visitations can resume safely. Please join me and the Alzheimer’s Association in asking Gov. Ricketts to help reunite Nebraska families by ensuring access to rapid COVID-19 testing for all long-term care communities in our state.
Sharon R. Stephens, of Omaha, is executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association Nebraska Chapter.
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