State

Home for Christmas: Nursing Home Residents May Leave for Holiday

Sue Schnars is looking forward to spending Christmas with her daughter Ivana, who lives in a nursing home.  

“She just loves being with her family. She loves lights and the Christmas tree. We will watch ‘Elf’ because she loves that,” Schnars said.

After months of isolation, Texans in nursing homes can come home for Christmas.  

This year, those in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have been isolated from their families due to COVID-19 restrictions. Those who are older and have underlying health conditions have proven to be among the most vulnerable to the virus.

However, loneliness and separation from loved ones take their toll on the health and well-being of the elderly and disabled as well, a recent study commissioned by the federal government confirmed. 

The Texas Health and Human Services Department (HHS) issued guidance in November that clarified the rights of residents in assisted living and nursing homes to leave the facility and to participate in family and religious group activities.  

Some families took advantage of the opportunity at Thanksgiving, bringing beloved family members home for the day.

Darlene Munk and her 88-year-old mom, Sophie, have endured months of separation. But they were together on Thanksgiving. 

“It was wonderful! When you don’t get to see or hug your mom for nine months, that’s hard. It was fabulous to have her with us. It was beyond words,” Munk told The Texan.

They set up a separate table for Sophie’s Thanksgiving dinner and made sure everyone wore masks and sanitized their hands before interacting with her.  

Schnars also brought Ivana home for Thanksgiving. The isolation had taken a toll on Ivana, who is non-verbal and kept her head down and her eyes closed much of the time after her mother was kept from visiting her.  

Schnars said Ivana smiled the whole time she was home for Thanksgiving, and that she had missed seeing those dimples. She is looking forward to their Christmas visit too. 

“Residents have always had the right to leave a facility temporarily or permanently. We have spent months living as though this right was waived, but it was not. Re-education of facility staff, residents, and family members will take time,” State Long-Term Care Ombudsman Patty Ducayet told The Texan.

If a resident is only gone for part of a day, and not overnight, the nursing home must not automatically place the resident in a 14-day quarantine. Each decision is supposed to be based on the individual circumstances of the outside visit: the size of the gathering, physical distancing maintained, use of face masks, and encounters with anyone exhibiting symptoms or who had tested positive for COVID-19.

However, if a resident leaves for an overnight visit, they must be placed in a 14-day quarantine upon return to the facility, the HHS letter explains.

Because of increased cases in their area, Munk and her siblings decided not to bring Sophie home for Christmas. 

“We were not sure it was a good idea to take her out right now because we are a large family and are all out and about doing our jobs,” Munk explained.

But they still made the annual tradition of seeing her the Sunday before Christmas happen. About 25 family members gathered outside her assisted living home in Seguin and surprised her with a round of “Silent Night.” 

Schnars is very careful with Ivana too, given the increase in cases in the Austin area where they live. Ivana has already recovered from COVID-19 despite her respiratory issues. The Christmas gathering will be limited to just close family, who themselves limit outside interactions and follow strict measures. Schnars is tested for COVID-19 about every eight days.

“If the nursing home had asked me not to take her out, I would have honored that,” Schnars said.

Visitation Rights

In September, Texas HHS finally allowed up to two designated essential caregivers to visit nursing home residents and provide care and support to a resident in his room or a visitation area. Many nursing home residents hadn’t seen their loved ones in person since March after Governor Abbott ordered that no visitors be allowed into nursing homes.

Rep. James Frank (R-Wichita Falls) and Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) have proposed legislation in “an effort to strengthen the rights of facility residents to maintain contact and personal visits with their loved ones during state emergencies.” It would codify the right to have designated essential caregivers. Currently, the essential caregiver visits are only a part of the HHS rules. 

Kolkhorst, who chairs the Senate’s Health & Human Services Committee, said in a press statement, “I have listened to emotional stories from constituents and heard from desperate families across Texas who were not allowed to see a loved one for months. While there is a public health mission to protect our vulnerable populations from COVID-19, that pursuit should not send residents into a state of solitary confinement with no personal contact from family or friends.”

Frank, who chairs the House Human Services Committee, said, “These vulnerable Texans need the care, communication, and physical touch of loved ones and the experience of human interaction that is crucial to quality of life and to both physical and mental health. The Legislature must work this session at ensuring that these tragedies are not repeated in the future.”

Mary Nichols, who advocates for her own mother and others in long-term care facilities with Texas Caregivers for Compromise, recognizes the importance of these changes so family members can visit their loved ones. 

“These residents have already spent 10 months in long-term care with almost no family contact. If the average life remaining of a person in a nursing home is one to two years, they have already lost half to three-quarters of the time remaining them depending on which average you use. It is grossly unfair for families to be forced to become long term care guideline experts, more informed than even their facilities, in order to preserve the remainder of their loved ones’ lives,” she told The Texan.

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