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Lifting the veil of isolation, advocates call for nursing home changes

Over the last year, nursing homes, while continuing to provide heroic care, became a prison of isolation for so many in their golden years.

HARTFORD, Conn. — As nursing home visitation restrictions are lifted, a group of advocates is calling for change and reflecting on the tragedy that has, so far, killed 38% of the pre-COVID-19 nursing home population.

Over the last year, nursing homes, while continuing to provide heroic care, became a prison of isolation for so many in their golden years. 

Members of the group Caregivers for Compromise shared their stories of struggle.

"Here we are, a year later," remarked Cynthia Hadden, whose dad, Joe is in a Connecticut nursing home. "It is time to make some positive changes," said Sharon Echtman, whose husband, Joe is also in a nursing home.

They recalled the year of loneliness and isolation that was.

"The responses were always she’s fine. Her stats are the same. There’s nothing we can do," said Lynn Norman.

Lynn recalled the virtual visits that led to a cognitive decline in her mother Connie.

"Through these connections, we could see her decline. Slowly she stopped laughing and smiling. Then she no longer said words. Then there was no reaction whatsoever she just stared at us on the screen."

The sea of signs on the South Lawn of the state Capitol on Friday read — 'isolation kills.'

Each sign was inscribed with a name of a lonely loved one who is either isolated in a nursing home or who passed away amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We have learned that locking families out has not kept COVID-19 out," said Echtman, whose husband suffers from Alzheimer's. "They need the power of touch, a hug or holding a loved one's hand."

New federal guidance from the Center for Medicaid Services allows for an embrace.

But that guidance is just that — it needs to be communicated, reinforced, and implemented by state authorities.

Liz Stern is the organizer of Caregivers for Compromise. She says, "Connecticut DPH must inform all the residents and their families to the full extent of the guidance and enforce that guidance."

Caregivers for Compromise is also calling for Connecticut to join 17 other states in allowing residents to have access to a designated essential support person, usually a family member.

"Who is equipped as staff is and has unimpeded access regardless of infection level," said Stern.

Federal guidance now says in indoor, in-person nursing home visitation should be allowed at all nursing homes at all times unless the county COVID positive rate exceeds 10% AND less than 70% of the residents in that nursing home are fully vaccinated.

"This guidance from the federal government is a step in the right direction. We too wait for the day when resident's rights are fully restored," remarked Mairead Painter. The long-term care ombudsman for the state of Connecticut. "We need do find a balance between medical care and social and emotional support," added Painter.

While Friday's rally focused on policy changes and next steps, there will also be a rally at Hammonasset State Beach on Saturday. It will memorialize the residents and victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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