Cut off from loved ones in nursing care by coronavirus, families fear the unknown

COVID-19 has left families of loved ones in nursing homes fearing the unknown.

Jenn Hubbert was working from home on March 17 when her husband called out to her from across the house.

“He was watching TV when he realized the breaking news was about my mother’s nursing facility,” said Hubbert, a real estate agent in Florida. “The first death from coronavirus had been reported, and I didn't even know there was a case there. I was in disbelief.”

The Hubberts are part of a growing segment of the country suffering through the anxiety of a global pandemic with a loved one in a nursing home -- an anxiety-ridden experience as their elderly relatives remain locked down in facilities that have proven to be highly vulnerable to viral spread.

Since the coronavirus engulfed a senior living center in Kirkland, Washington, on Feb. 29, at least 400 nursing facilities in more than 25 states have seen at least one resident contract COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Across the country, nursing homes are seeing deadly outbreaks almost every day. More than 100 residents and staff were infected and 18 died at a home in Maryland, and more than 100 others were infected and five died at one in Tennessee; and 133 tested positive and 17 died at a facility in Virginia, according to figures released by the states last week.

In an effort to shield the facilities, nursing homes across the country have enacted tight cordons, banning visitors and isolating residents. Already under immense pressure as they attempt to combat the virus, nursing home staff are also trying to field urgent questions from concerned family members about conditions.

PHOTO: General overall view of Cedar Mountain Post Acute senior living center, April 1, 2020, in Yucaipa, Calif.
General overall view of Cedar Mountain Post Acute senior living center, April 1, 2020, in Yucaipa, Calif.
Dylan Stewart/Image of Sport via Newscom

The combination of the well-intentioned measures and lack of information has been hard on some families, who told ABC News the limited interactions with their loved ones have added to their emotional strain and in some cases left them in the dark and unable to check on their relatives' well-being.

In Louisiana, Tunney Barrett says he learned of an outbreak at his mother’s nursing home through news reports. But when he called to learn more, Barrett said the facility initially would not say anything and at first denied the positive case. He was unable to get information directly from his mother, he said, because she has Parkinson’s disease and dementia.

“They don’t understand what families are going through,” Barrett said. “We are being kept in the dark about what’s going on.”

Barrett said he has considered trying to remove his mother from the nursing facility, but he said he worries he cannot provide her with the around-the-clock monitoring she needs.

For Caroline Langdon, whose 85-year-old mother has advanced Alzheimer's disease and is a resident in the memory care unit at St. James Place in Louisiana, the hardest part is not being able to continue her routine of seeing her mom every week.

"It's kind of twofold though because with my mom, she has no concept for time anymore, so where some people could still call their loved one and have them pick up the phone or ... they started doing a FaceTime thing to assist the residents, my mom wouldn't know what to do with that,” she said.

Cathy West is in a similar situation in Illinois. Her 87-year-old mother lives at Alden Courts of Shorewood facility southwest of Chicago, where a visitation ban has been in place for over a month. Last week, Cathy West said the facility informed her family of its first positive case for COVID-19.

West said her mother struggles with short term memory and does not understand why she can’t see her children. She said it was “extremely difficult” to walk away from her mother each time a visit ends, as her mom asks why she hasn’t come inside.

“My mom is heartbroken and she doesn’t understand why,” West said. “She can’t understand what’s happening.”

Officials with nursing homes interviewed by ABC News said they are focused on a challenging set of priorities, chief among them protecting residents and staff from the potentially deadly virus. At the same time, they are trying to keep their facilities supplied with protective equipment, plan for how to respond if residents fall ill, and maintain a sense of comfort and normalcy for residents.

Melanie Burgess, a nurse at an assisted living facility in New Jersey, said the burdens can make it difficult to keep pace with the inquiries from relatives.

“Right now, nursing homes are struggling.” Burgess said. “And we are doing everything we can, so families need to trust us.”

Dr. Mark Gloth, the medical director for one of the nation’s largest senior living chains, HRC Manorcare, said the facilities understand the stress the outbreak has placed on those family members who have relatives in nursing care. He told ABC News he wants relatives to know that “throughout our system, people taking care of your loved ones are deeply invested in taking the best care possible.”

“We want to be an extension of you,” he said. “Please know we are doing everything we can to be helpful, caring, and to respond to the needs that you have.”

For those whose older relatives have already tested positive for COVID-19, it can be an enormous challenge.

Maria Castro, a lawyer in Miami, said she is especially concerned for both of her in-laws. They live at Atria Willow Wood, a senior living facility that houses 219 residents in Florida. As of Saturday, seven residents have died and 20 have tested positive for COVID-19.

Castro says that her father-in-law, Ángel Rodriguez, 87, was placed in the same room as his wife, Ivonne Camacho, 82, after he tested positive for the coronavirus.

“It was only a matter of days until my mother in-law tested positive too,” Castro said. “And the facility doesn’t update us on how they are doing which makes this situation so much worse.”

In a statement to ABC News Atria Willow Wood maintained that they were keeping the families of their residents informed regularly. The facility declined to address Rodriguez's case.

“We remain in daily communication with residents and families as well as the different state and local agencies, including the Department of Health office in Broward County, and others, and will continue to work with them as we monitor and respond to this situation,” the statement said.

The nursing facility ultimately decided to move Rodriguez to a hospital when his condition worsened. Castro said the family is gripped with worry.

“We brought them [to Florida] from Puerto Rico in the hope of giving them a better quality of life. This was not supposed to happen.” Castro said. “All I want is to see them again."

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