Leslie Alley lives about 20 minutes from her mother, Glenda Thorne, an 84-year-old resident of Poydras Home. But in six months, the closest contact she was able to make was waving through a fence when her mom went on daily walks around the grounds of the Uptown New Orleans retirement home.
On Thursday, however, under the shade of a gazebo on the grounds, mother and daughter sat within a few arms’ lengths for the first time since March. Poydras Home reopened its doors to visitors this week for the first time since a statewide lockdown closed Louisiana nursing homes at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I absolutely understand why the governor did it. But look, their emotional well-being is as important in their life at this stage as their physical well-being,” said Alley, the French Market executive director who used to see her mother every other day after work. “We very much hope this is the first of many visits.”
Louisiana’s 270-plus nursing homes have banned visitors since the virus took hold in many of nursing homes across the United States in the early days of the pandemic. But the shutdown did not stop the spread: More than 40% of Louisiana’s 5,241 confirmed coronavirus deaths were nursing home residents.
But the visitor ban had its own consequences.
“More emotional outbursts, crying spells, more irritability, which is a common sign of depression,” said Erin Kolb, chief executive officer of Poydras Home. “Decreased appetites, weight loss, all as a result of the isolation.”
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Staff tried to substitute where they could, connecting families via video conference and trying to fill in the social gaps by spending one-on-one time with residents. But no one can really replace family, residents said.
“We’ve been in this situation for six months,” said Thorne, who moved into Poydras Home about a year ago. “It’s a little bit overwhelming to always be with people you’re not related to. You still have family you need to be in contact with.”
Alley described her mom as a “girl’s girl” who loved socializing, often went to lunch with friends — usually at Upperline or Clancy’s — and visited with family frequently before the ban. She went to exercise class daily, took bus rides to the lake and enjoyed happy hours with residents.
In March, that all stopped. When Poydras had cases of coronavirus, residents couldn’t leave their rooms. “Dull as dirt,” her mother would say on daily phone calls.
Thorne feels fortunate to be safe. But she is ready to see family again.
“The thing she says, which breaks my heart, is she doesn’t want to die in there without getting to see anyone,” Alley said. “You’re 84 years old. Do you want to spend the rest of your life in there locked in your room?”
Since coronavirus pandemic took hold in March, they’ve been on lockdown
Poydras Home is slowly opening up some activities, like distanced dining and outdoor visitation. To be extra cautious, it is not yet allowing indoor visits and requires plexiglass separation outdoors for some residents, depending on whether they are assisted living or nursing home residents.
Before nursing homes in Louisiana may allow visits, they must first meet criteria for case positivity rates within the parish and infection rates within the nursing home. The allowance is based on guidance from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. For indoor visits, a nursing home must be free of new coronavirus cases for two weeks and the parish positivity rate must be below 10%. The federal agency recommends that visits be held outdoors when practical, where the transmission rate is proven to be much lower.
Susan Block and her daughter, Kelly Block, held mobile phone photos against the plexiglass for matriarch Betty Drury on Thursday, the first time they’ve been able to see her since they held a distanced 94th birthday from the fence in early July.
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Even with the added difficulties of communicating with masks and plexiglass, the three generations joked and updated Drury on her 11 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. That’s whom she would really love to see, Susan Block said.
“Now that there are great-grandchildren, she’s like, ‘Forget all y’all. I just want to see the little ones,’” her daughter said.
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For now, children younger than 16 are still not allowed at Poydras Home. Staff worry about the asymptomatic spread that is common among children. But they hope to lessen restrictions if they can.
“We are dealing with a group of people whose days are not infinite,” Kolb said. “That is a sad thing, that they have lost such precious time with their family. But I know now that our families and our residents will cherish every moment they have going forward.”
Emily Woodruff covers public health for The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate as a Report For America corps member.