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Screen To Sunshine: Senior Care Facilities Reopen Visitation

By Dakota Parks for Coming of Age Magazine

From the onset of the global health crisis, protecting vulnerable and high-risk populations in nursing homes and assisted living facilities became the upmost priority. Daily life for senior citizens drastically changed as facilities implemented social distancing procedures, closed guest visitation and created new programing and activities to keep residents occupied. Face-to-face visits with family members changed to FaceTime and Zoom calls and weekly outings were replaced with grocery and pharmacy delivery services. After nearly six months in lock-down, nursing homes and care facilities across the state of Florida are now reopening to guest visitation following CDC guidelines and Emergency Order 20-011. To better understand the way COVID has impacted senior care across the state, Coming of Age spoke to a local care facility and a representative from LeadingAge Florida.


Around mid-March, when COVID-19 was first categorized as a pandemic, Emergency Order 20-006 set out to restrict and close visitation to senior care facilities in the state of Florida and slow the spread of the virus. As the director of communications at LeadingAge Florida, Nick Van Der Linden explained, around this same time senior care facilities across the state began implementing new procedures to protect residents.


“Shortly after the news broke about the first Coronavirus case in the United States, our members quickly instituted screening protocols at their entrances,” Van Der Linden said. “They established COVID-19 response teams, instituted mask policies, restricted visitation, closed dining rooms, pools, gyms, common areas and all group activities. They also set up COVID-19 isolation units to prevent the spread if it broke through.”


LeadingAge Florida, a leading advocate in the state of Florida for senior living, represents over Residents enjoying a game of hallway bingo. 250 communities, consisting of more than 500 facilities and 80,000+ senior citizens. The not-for-profit organization provides representation before legislature and education and training opportunities for members. As Van Der Linden explained, in early March, LeadingAge Florida also began coordinating with several health organizations to streamline a single source of information in daily conference calls with members.


“I can’t say enough about the resiliency and dedication of our members to fighting the virus and keeping residents and staff safe and healthy,” Van Der Linden said. “They have optimized the use of technology to keep residents connected to their neighbors on the campus and their loved ones to avoid any detrimental effects of social isolation. They have modified normal living activities such as in-home dining, grocery and pharmacy pickups to door delivery, and they have been innovative in launching home fitness programs through in-home television sets and wellness care services through telehealth.”


Facilities and members of LeadingAge Florida across the state have even created social distanced activities like hallway bingo played from the safety of resident’s doorways, virtual learning art classes and virtual guided museum tours. As the CDC publicized early-on, isolation and loneliness can pose serious health detriments such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression and cognitive decline.


Outside of COVID-19 mandated isolation, a study from National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that elderly populations are also at a higher risk for loneliness and isolation with nearly one fourth of adults aged 65 and older considered to be socially isolated. Therefore, these safe activities and video chat visitations were paramount to fighting detrimental side effects to resident isolation.


Amanda Waddell, a liaison for Southern Oaks Care Center, in Pensacola expressed the same dedication to maintaining the morale and mental health of senior residents. Southern Oaks is a 210-bed long term care and short-term physical therapy rehabilitation nursing center with a secured memory care unit for Alzheimer and Dementia residents. Early into the pandemic, Southern Oaks utilized an outdoor three-walled plexiglass structure for visitations, however Hurricane Sally destroyed the structure and moved visitation to video or appointment only.


“Southern Oaks Care Center was the first skilled nursing facility in our county to test our residents in Mid-March,” Waddell explained. “We wanted to be proactive and try to get ahead of this virus by determining who was infected and isolating them. We have been COVID-free for several months now, and we attribute that to the dedication and excellent care provided by our staff. We are very concerned about resident morale and understand the importance of keeping them connected with family.”


The daily life for residents changed from group activities, communal dining, going out to restaurants, trips to the beach, fishing or shopping trips to being restricted to meals in their rooms and social distancing. Southern Oaks, like many facilities, soon created six-foot distanced communal dining and indoor distance activities like bingo, cooking club, Family Feud nights, movie and popcorn events, drive-thru lunch outings, fun n’ fitness, jewelry making classes, manicures and spa days. Southern Oaks has currently reopened scheduled visitations and is prepared to make adjustments in the case of a positive COVID case.


“Everything is constantly changing. We all learn more [about the virus] each day and try to do best we can possibly do with the information we have at that moment,” Van Der Linden said. “I think that amidst the uncertainty and doing everything possible to keep residents and staff safe, there are a lot of really good stories out there about the resiliency and strength of people.”


As COVID-19 cases continue to surge across the state of Florida, senior care facilities are continuing to adhere to health administrative guidelines while monitoring residents and ensuring their overall mental and physical well-being. Whether it’s on a Zoom screen, six feet across a table or sitting out in the Florida sunshine, family and guest visitation remains an imperative part of senior wellness and care.

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