With Cases Rising, Mass. Nursing Home Residents Worry Family Visits Will End

Residents in Massachusetts nursing homes could not have visitors for a long stretch of the coronavirus pandemic, and as cases increase, they are worried they'll have to be apart from loved ones again

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It was a long wait, but Ida Willman and her daughter were finally reunited at the Holden Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Center – albeit at a distance.

The pair recently met under a shady tent in the parking lot of the Massachusetts nursing home, enjoying their first half hour together since the facility closed to visitors in the spring.

Sitting across a table, they caught up on family, and talked about driving along the coast when things go back to normal.

"It was good to see her," daughter Jane Hanscome said. "Finally, it was nice. It makes me happy to see my mother."

Long-term care residents endured a long separation from friends and family after the state barred visitors to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the spring.

Visits have resumed outdoors, but some worry time with family will be fleeting. In-person visits are allowed only while the state's coronavirus numbers move in the right direction.

In a move that could foreshadow what's to come, the Holyoke Soldiers' Home – site of a major outbreak earlier this year – suspended visitations again on July 28 after a resident who had clinically recovered from the coronavirus tested positive again.

Elsewhere, the state wants nursing home residents to communicate as much as possible by Skype, FaceTime, WhatsApp, Google Duo or other electronic means.

Hanscome talks with her mom on the phone, but in-person visits are important. Before the pandemic arrived, she came about three times a week, helping with chores and staying for lunch.

Then in March, staff called her to the library and announced visitors weren't allowed.

"Just the thought of not being able to see your mother, it was horrible," she recalled. "I knew it was for her best, but I just prayed that it wouldn't get her in here."

The Holden Rehabilitation & Skilled Nursing Center took action early to keep residents safe from coronavirus, but people inside were still infected.

But despite precautions, her mom did get the disease. Willman became one of the more than 24,000 residents and workers at long-term care facilities in Massachusetts with a confirmed or likely case of COVID-19.

She didn't get seriously ill, but staff moved Willman to a different wing of the facility after she tested positive.

"We had to stay in our room, which was bad," she remembered. "I hated that."

Willman also celebrated a major milestone without family nearby – her 100th birthday. Her family had planned to throw a big party at the senior center. Instead, staff treated her to a spaghetti dinner, with some white wine.

"It was lousy wine," she remembered with a laugh.

Willman kept her sense of humor while she recovered. And the state began allowing outdoor visits again in June.

Residents can't be COVID-19 positive, or show symptoms. Visitors are also screened, and must keep their distance.

Tara D'Andrea, administrator of the Holden facility, said staff are staying vigilant and trying to stay one step ahead of the virus.

"I think it's just really keeping up with the guidance that we're given, keeping an eye on the community around us and what's going on, and if the community is seeing cases, and just being really vigilant," she said.

Hanscome hopes she'll celebrate with her mom in person when she turns 101 next year.

"I hope that we're not in this predicament," she said. "You know, I hope we all have a vaccine by then and we can lighten up on how we have to live now. It's hard."

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