Nursing home worker says COVID-19 restrictions causing depression in residents

The elderly had already faced isolation and loneliness. Now, it's getting worse.

November 19, 2020, 2:23 PM

Eight months since the coronavirus caused widespread lockdowns across the country, a dietitian at a nursing home in Sacramento, California, said its residents have been suffering from isolation, and it has led to a slate of emotional and behavioral problems.

“The older population already runs the risk of being very lonely in our society, whether they live in a facility such as ours or they live at home. So that was something we saw right away among the dementia patients — the ones who really require a lot of routine and normalcy,” Katy Tenner told ABC News’ daily podcast, “Start Here.” “There was nothing normal or routine about suddenly having their loved ones not being able to come visit.”

Nursing homes were among the hardest-hit facilities early on in the pandemic. By the end of October, there had been at least 82,000 COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes and long-term care facilities throughout the 41 states where data was available, according to ABC News’ analysis of state-released figures.

A resident watches the activity at an assisted living facility in Boston during the coronavirus pandemic, Sept. 02, 2020.
Boston Globe via Getty Images, FILE

Along the way, improvements in COVID-19 treatments and protocols throughout these facilities led to a reduction in the percentage of cases and deaths when compared to the overall counts. But Tenner said that without the ability to see their families and friends, there’s been an “uptick” in depression and, specific to her profession, a lack of appetite among residents. She also says there’s a lot of fear.

“A lot of our residents are stuck in their rooms watching TV, and what are they watching? They’re watching the news,” she said. “So a lot of the information they’re getting is dependent upon which news outlet they’re watching — either this is fake, this doesn’t exist or this is really super scary and everybody’s going to die,” Tenner said.

The nursing home in which Tenner works has been caring for some patients for upward of 10 years, she said. Many of the patients would have daily visitors, providing social and emotional support to complement physical care from the staff. Since the pandemic began, Tenner said whether the staff members are “qualified or not,” they’re now the ones who have to step into “this social services” role.

“We are now some of the only people that our residents see on a daily basis — the only familiar faces,” she said.

At the same time, these restrictions have been keeping everyone within the facility safe. Eight out of 10 deaths related to COVID-19 have been in those ages 65 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A medic tries to save the life of a nursing home resident in cardiac arrest on Aug. 12, 2020, in Houston.
John Moore/Getty Images, FILE

Tenner said that while her facility has seen several isolated cases of the virus, it’s been “one of the few” that haven’t seen a full-blown outbreak. She said it’s far more dangerous to the residents than the flu.

“Every year ... there might be one or two deaths out of a population of about 160 patients. That’s normal,” Tenner said. “When this comes in, it can decimate a population of older people. ... It’s not like the flu. It’s not one of those, ‘Oh, they’re kind of fine,’ and then two days later, Susie Smith is in the [intensive care unit] on a ventilator. I’ve never seen that from the flu in any of our patients ever.”

“It definitely seems that once it’s in a facility, it spreads like wildfire,” she added.

Tenner said she and her colleagues are also concerned they’ll accidentally bring the virus into the facility. None of them want to be “patient zero,” she said.

“Knowing what we know, you know what this can do if it gets into a nursing home,” Tenner said. “We care about our residents even in a normal year. We’ve grown to love them, and none of us want to be that person.”

This report was featured in the Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020, episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.

“Start Here” offers a straightforward look at the day’s top stories in 20 minutes. Listen for free every weekday on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, the ABC News app or wherever you get your podcasts.

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