By Kent R. Kroeger (July 14, 2020)
I must preface this essay with this acknowledgement: In preparing my visit with my 92-year-old mother, the staff at the Western Home’s Windhaven Assisted Living residence in Cedar Falls, Iowa, could not have been friendlier, more professional or more accommodating given the extraordinary circumstances.
I bitched. I moaned. I complained about every rule they imposed on the visit — particularly disallowing my mother’s 14-year-old grandson to stand with me behind a Plexiglas window barrier that protected her from me.
As it was over 90 degrees in Windhaven’s outside courtyard — where the visit took place — my time with my mother was limited to 30 minutes (though the nurses aide appeared willing to let us go longer, had we requested).
The control measures seemed excessive then; and, in retrospect, they still feel that way.
Even so, I accepted the Western Home’s restrictions (What choice did I have?). As a nurses aide tried to ease my disappointment, she told me, “We can’t take any chances. You understand.”
I understood. I have no complaints with the Western Home. They are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Considering that over 40 percent of U.S. coronavirus deaths are linked to nursing homes, the Western Home had few options. It is easier to protect people from the coronavirus than it is to isolate and eradicate the coronavirus itself. Epidemiologists say, even with a vaccine, the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and its mutation offspring may be with us forever.
When the books are finally written about the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, a large part of the story will be how the U.S. failed its senior citizens, and the blame will cross party lines.
And first in line for criticism should be New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who, in the last minute, inserted into New York’s final budget bill (passed in late March) a provision that “shielded nursing homes from many lawsuits over their failure to protect residents from death or sickness caused by the coronavirus.”
Sadly, New York is not the only state where the nursing home lobby has successfully pressed for legal protections that make it harder for families to sue over negligent COVID-19-related deaths.
If you are wondering why CNN or MSNBC aren’t covering this nursing home liability story more tenaciously, most likely it is because they can’t blame it on Donald Trump. The coronavirus has been so completely politicized by the news media — conservative podcaster Steve Deace perceptively refers to media coverage of the pandemic as ‘panic porn’ — the public is worse off for consuming it. Once more, complicity for this politicization crosses the ideological spectrum.
As for my visit with my mother, my biggest regret is that I didn’t lie about my son’s age (he’s 14 and only people aged 18 and older can visit Western Home residents right now).
The visit itself was mostly a positive experience, though its strict limitations were frustrating. Through the inch-thick glass barrier, I could barely hear my mother’s voice (and vice versa). To compensate, we were yelling most of the time. In the end, the 30 minutes I had with my mother on that hot July afternoon felt more like a prison visit.
“Mom, maybe with good behavior they’ll let you out on parole?”
“I’m innocent,” she pleaded back. “I was framed.”
Having raised three boys, my mom has a battle-tested sense of humor.
But, as my visit ended and I began drive away from Windhaven, my wife and son (who had been waiting in the car) begged if they could at least wave at my mother through her apartment window.
I didn’t know her apartment number.
I asked one of the attendants if that would be possible. I could tell he was supposed to say “No,” but he paused for a moment, went into the facility’s office, and soon returned.
“Room 19. North Wing. First level, looking towards the parking lot,” he said. “I’ll let her know.”
Despite years of clean living and an uncompromising daily exercise routine, my mother’s body has ultimately betrayed her. Osteoporosis has left her wheelchair-bound. A woman that once started every day to either Tae Bo or Sweating to Richard Simmons and the Oldies, can no longer walk. Aging can be cruel enough, but add to that a pandemic-related quarantine and the result is demoralizing for my mother and her family.
The healing power of touch is well-documented in medical science. There must be a better way to protect our seniors from dangerous pathogens without denying the physical contact they need (and their families need) for a decent quality of life.
I don’t know what the solution is, I just know I left the Windhaven nursing home feeling more sad than happy.
It didn’t need to be that way.
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