HARTFORD, Conn. -- Visitation bans at nursing homes have renewed interest in legislation that would allow families to put remote cameras inside the facilities to help see how loved ones are doing.
Before the pandemic, cameras were seen as a way to identify elder abuse and neglect. But now, many hope they could bring comfort after visitation bans imposed to stem the devastating tide of COVID-19 inside nursing homes left many families struggling to get information.
"That visitation ban, it was really, really upsetting to people. And I think understandably, Some facilities aren’t great about sharing information about what’s going on,” said Anna Doroghazi, the associate state director for AARP in Connecticut. She has heard stories about people calling a nursing home five times before someone finally picked up the phone and families unable to get an update on a loved one’s condition.
“For me, this isn’t about a gotcha game with nursing home staff. I think especially now, people are doing their best. They’re showing up. They’re doing a good job,” Doroghazi said. “But for me, cameras are really about peace of mind for family members.”
About a dozen states already have laws or regulations in place allowing residents and their families to install video cameras, subject to certain rules.
Last month, Missouri lawmakers passed legislation allowing families to request cameras to connect with loved ones in a nursing home. The state's governor is reviewing the legislation.
Camera bills have also gained new life in other states, including Ohio and Connecticut.
Vicki Krafthefer said cameras might have helped alleviate frustration at not being able to see firsthand what has been happening this spring to her 65-year-old sister, Christy Buzzard, in an Ohio long-term care facility.
Since March, Buzzard, who suffered brain damage as toddler, has a childlike personality and is now partially paralyzed from a stroke, has fallen seven times, been hospitalized for a serious head injury and was isolated after testing positive for COVID-19.
Through phone calls and window visits, she also described being kicked and having her hair pulled, allegations the facility has denied.
“If I could get a camera in her room, I could look at it and see who’s coming in and who’s going out. I could tell who’s the ones being mean to her,” said Krafthefer. “The cameras are so badly needed. I mean, if we had that, it would help the workers a lot. It would help the families. It would help the residents. There’s so much good a camera can do.”
Ohio House Rep. Juanita Brent, a Democrat from suburban Cleveland who introduced a bill late last year that would allow cameras, said she's heard from numerous families since the pandemic hit who haven't been able to see their relatives for months and now want to install them.
“People are now understanding the urgency of why we need this implemented,” she said. “You feel kind of helpless.”
The cameras allow families to monitor loved ones in real time or make recordings. In most cases, residents can ask that they be turned off for privacy. There are safeguards to protect roommates from being filmed unknowingly. Signs in rooms alert staff and visitors that the cameras are operating.
Both Connecticut's Department of Public Health commissioner and the state's nursing home industry have voiced privacy concerns.
“The public disclosure of the very private material concerning nursing home residents can be devastating, especially given the impossibility of a foolproof assurance that the data or streaming material cannot be compromised,” Matthew Barrett, president and CEO of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, said in testimony submitted to Connecticut lawmakers.
Hidden cameras should only be allowed as part of a criminal investigation, he said.
Liz Stern of Stonington, Connecticut, has been among family members of nursing home residents pressuring the Connecticut General Assembly to pass a camera bill.
Stern took up the cause after the private aides she hires to provide extra care for her 91-year-old mother had to stop seeing her because of COVID-19 visitor restrictions.
“They would report to us. They would put the phone to her ear. They would take photographs. They would manage anything that went awry there,” said Stern, who's worried about neglect, not abuse. She has since been unable to get a camera installed for various reasons, including opposition from the family of her mother's roommate.
When Julie Griffith suspected that her 96-year-old mother was being mistreated at a nursing home near Toledo, Ohio, she and her husband set up an audio recorder behind a picture frame last August.
What they heard left them stunned — a male nurse’s aide disguising himself as a woman and verbally and mentally abusing Griffith's mother at night. It was enough to have the aide fired and sentenced on abuse and neglect charges.
Now that they can no longer monitor what’s happening inside her room, they are wracked with fear.
“We have been at a loss since then and we can’t get any answers,” Griffith said.
“They’re telling us everything is perfect. We have no way of knowing,” said Julie’s husband, David. “Everything is a secret.”
Seewer reported from Toledo, Ohio.