Grace Barnum
Coronavirus separates seniors from their families on Thanksgiving
03:36 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Elderly people in nursing homes and assisted living facilities around the country haven’t been able to hug a loved one in many months because of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, many are facing their first Thanksgiving and possibly Christmas without them.

“I’m just waiting,” Grace Barnum, 76, a resident at Beechwood Long Term Care in New London, Connecticut, said. Fighting back tears, she added: “To be able to hug again.”

Nursing homes and other facilities for the elderly were hit hard early on in the pandemic because the virus is so deadly among that population. There have been more than 70,000 deaths in long-term care facilities, and though the people there account for only about 8% of coronavirus cases, they made up 45% of deaths by early September, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The precautions taken to protect residents are necessary, but they often limit visitation times and any physical contact with loved ones.

“It’s like my heart gets ripped out sometimes,” Cathy Corey, a Beechwood resident, said of not being able to see loved ones.

FaceTime and Google Meet virtual visits are good, she said, but “It’s not like being with them. But it’s as close as you’re gonna get, you know.”

Especially this time of year.

“The holidays are all about memories as a family and everything like that, and it’s hard enough being without your family, but when they can’t even come up and eat a meal with you … It’s hard,” Corey said. “Luckily, we have a family here.”

Cathy Corey said about not seeing loved ones: "it's like my heart gets ripped out sometimes."

Beechwood owner Bill White said his facility will serve some great food to residents and does everything it can to make them feel at home.

“You know, we’re always doing our best to make people happy, because, honestly, I’d rather be home,” White said. “I know everybody else would.”

Beechwood has put up a multilayered system of checks to prevent Covid-19 from infiltrating and spreading at the facility, White said, going through periods of not allowing visitations at all.

It has had just 14 cases since March, and only three of those were residents. The rest were among staff members.

At least one resident was grateful for the protection.

“We were really lucky to have such precautions taken, Barnum said. “You didn’t see that everywhere, and the people really paid the price.”

Connecticut has one of the only facilities in the country that takes long-term care patients from around the state who test positive for the virus, said Tim Brown, the director of marketing communications at Athena Healthcare Systems, which runs the Westfield facility in Meriden.

With such a facility, “You are able to identify residents that are Covid positive, move them out of the building quickly, mitigate the spread within the building that they’re originally located in,” Brown said.

“The staff is better prepared, staffing levels are better,” he said.

The state had four coronavirus-only homes for residents from long-term care facilities earlier in the year but shut them down when the number of cases dropped. Westfield was reopened recently, and demand has been brisk, said Nicole Sheehey, the director of nursing at Westfield.

In Connecticut alone last week, there were 306 confirmed coronavirus cases among nursing home residents, and 39 people died.

“It’s been very consistent since the day we opened,” Sheehey said. “We haven’t had a slow day.”

And while the concept is sound and admirable, the residents there won’t even be able to celebrate Thanksgiving with the residents of the home they had been living in, that they often think of as another family.

Being in a long-term care facility in general can be isolating, Sheehey said.

“So especially with the holidays coming, it’s much harder,” she said.

“Seeing their loved one’s face, even if it’s just via a FaceTime visit, is sometimes a critical piece in their care and them getting stronger and better,” she said. “They need that familiarization.”

Westfield will have a traditional Thanksgiving meal and an entertainer who will play music in the courtyard, she said.

“We just want to try to bring as much comfort to them as possible,” Sheehey said. “So while we’re managing their symptoms, we also want to make sure that their mental health is being taken care of as well.”

Charles Miller said he will be spending his first Thanksgiving away from his wife and family this year.

Westfield doesn’t allow indoor visits, but patients can spend time with loved ones through windows.

Charles Miller, 73, was diagnosed with Covid-19 while being treated for a stroke. He didn’t have any symptoms when CNN visited Westfield recently.

His wife visits, sitting outside, talking to him through an open window.

“Yeah, it’s gonna be hard,” Miller said of not being able to spend Thanksgiving with his family.

“You know, you do what you got to do,” he said.

Miller said he told his family not to come right now for the sake of his grandsons’ health.

“Keep my family safe,” he said. “That’s important.”