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Heartbreak and hope in local care facilities

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On a Saturday last March, Linda Gibbs was returning her mother’s laundry to her when she learned Sylvia G. Thompson Residence Center, where her mother lives, was closing its doors to visitors due to the coronavirus pandemic.  

“I had picked up my mom’s laundry earlier in the day and was taking it back,” she said. “They told me that I couldn’t come in, and my heart broke. I just sat down and cried.”

Gibbs’ mother, Dorothy Ream, is 96 and has lived at Sylvia Thompson for three years. Gibbs asked staff how long the restriction would last and was initially told it would be just a few weeks. Little did she know some sort of restrictions would stretch to nearly a year. Since then, she has only seen her mother outside and six feet apart, inside with her mom behind a Plexiglass “visitation station,” or through Skype or FaceTime calls.

“I visited mom every day before the visitor policies changed,” she said. “It’s been so hard to not be able to hug or kiss her or hold her hand. We held hands all the time during our visits.” 

Pam Osburn, Sylvia Thompson administrator, said the health and well-being of residents have been the No. 1 priority in setting visitor policies, as well as following federal and state guidelines that regulate long-term care facilities. 

“We are regulated by both the federal government, under guidelines published by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), and by the state under the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services,” she said. “There are three phases set by CMS we are operating under for visitation and testing. Those standards have certain factors that are used to determine what we can do, such as the number of COVID-19 cases in the community and the level of transmission, the availability of PPE (personal protective equipment), staffing and adequate testing. We are still in Phase 1 and are required to remain there until the county transmission rate of COVID-19 shows a decrease for a minimum of 14 days.”

Osburn said the 120-bed Sylvia G. Thompson Residence Center and 60-bed E.W. Thompson Health & Rehabilitation Center, which are both operated by Sylvia G. Thompson Residence Center Inc., a local nonprofit, made a number of changes when the coronavirus hit last March including requiring all employees to wear masks, socially distancing residents, increasing cleaning and disinfecting protocols, and limiting activities, especially those where residents interacted with each other. 

“Socializing is an important factor in maintaining mental health,” she said. “So, we worked hard to replace those experiences without the concerns of close physical closeness. We created Plexiglass partitions at our dining tables so residents can see each other at mealtimes. For visiting with families, we purchased iPads to Skype or FaceTime and constructed Plexiglass visitation stations for 20-minute visits with two people at a time. We also accommodate visits at residents’ windows, which allows for entire families to visit.”

While the adapted visiting options are not how she would prefer to visit with her mom, Gibbs said she understands why the changes have been put in place and she appreciates the staff’s efforts to keep her informed. 

“They’ve been so helpful, wonderful, really,” she said. “They send out newsletters, answer all of my questions and call me with updates on mom. I’m sure they get tired of me calling all the time, but they never let it show. I can’t imagine the things they’ve had to alter to the way they work; they’ve made it feel pretty seamless.”

Osburn said because the county’s virus positivity rate is still high, the current in-person visitor policy for both facilities is for compassionate care or end-of-life care only. The decision to allow family in for this type of visitation is made by the administrator in consultation with hospice and the resident’s doctor.

That decision meant everything to Nadine Stilfield, whose 95-year-old mother, Edythe Ward, was under hospice care in Sylvia Thompson until she died Jan. 20. Stilfield said her mother had Alzheimer’s and her health had declined in the last few months. To visit her, she entered the center through a special door that kept her away from other residents. 

“I was allowed to see my mom in person, in her room, wearing my mask,” Stilfield said. “I could see her every day and touch her, which I was so thankful for, and I was able to be with her when she died so she didn’t die alone.” 

Stilfield said that before her mother’s decline and death, the visitor changes took a huge toll on her mother and an even bigger toll on her.

“It was very difficult. Even though she couldn’t communicate with me because of her memory issues, I could tell in her eyes that she knew I was a familiar face,” she said. “To put distance between us made communicating even harder. I also lost the connection of being there personally and observing and advocating for her care. Families can sometimes communicate when staff can’t because we know them best. It was a really difficult situation.”

When the COVID-19 vaccines became available, long-term care residents were among the first priority groups to receive them. To date, about 80% of residents and 50% of employees in both facilities have received the Moderna vaccine, which was administered by Walgreens through a contract with the federal government. 

Gibbs said that when her mother received her first dose on Jan. 7, staff called her within an hour to let her know that she was doing fine.

“All the staff, as far as I’m concerned, has gone beyond my expectations of keeping me informed about my mom,” she said. “From administration to nurses to CNAs to med techs, everyone is so sweet and patient and helpful. I really appreciate them.” 

Osburn and Kristen West, E.W. Thompson administrator, both want the public to know they are working hard to keep residents safe.

“Our hope is that, very soon, the vaccine will reach a distribution level that helps make a difference in the number of COVID-19 cases in our county,” West said. “We are encouraging all of our staff to receive the vaccine. That, and continued mask-wearing while the transmission is still high, will make a difference for our residents, their families and our employees. We certainly look forward to the day the regulations are lifted, and we can reunite families.”

For Linda Gibbs, that day can’t come soon enough. 

“Like everyone else, I hope and pray it goes away soon and we can go back to a little bit of normalcy,” she said. “It will be the best day when I can walk in there and give my mom a big hug and kiss and hold her hands again.”

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