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COVID-19 Magnifies Nursing Home Isolation

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Isolation is a deep-rooted challenge for nursing home residents. Unfortunately, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, nursing home residents are more isolated than ever.   
Earlier this year, nursing homes across the country were required to close their doors to visitors at the urging of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and local governments. While it was necessary to protect the residents from the virus, this social isolation has come with its own mental health consequences. 
A group in Ohio recently studied the impact of isolation on residents in 25 nursing homes. Psychologist Mary Lewis of Reflections Health and Wellness in Columbus reported that she observed alarming increases in self-neglect by the residents. Some had stopped eating normally and were sleeping more than usual, while others seemed to have “shut down” completely. Though the Ohio governor changed social distancing rules in early June to allow for limited socially distant visits at nursing homes, Lewis observed that for her clients, this did not mitigate the loss of physical proximity and touch as much as they had hoped.
Psychologists and social workers are helping to offset that loss by spending more time listening to residents and assisting them with the environmental changes of increased handwashing and mask-wearing. Residents are assisted and encouraged to have virtual visits with their loved ones, which  lessens the adverse effects of isolation, and offers families the opportunity to observe the conditions of the nursing home resident and his or her environment.
Normally, in-person visits allow for firsthand observation of any possible signs of abuse and neglect. Visits are especially crucial in the face of staffing and supply shortages in nursing homes. This new normal of reduced social contact, however, impairs the ability to ensure residents are living in a safe environment. Virtual visits at least offer an alternative to these much-needed in-person visits.
As cases have started to rise again in the Mid-South, and with another surge of infections expected in the fall and winter, there must be considerations for how to mitigate the risks of social isolation of our local nursing home residents. More widespread access to counseling and other mental health services will be essential to adapt to limited or no social contact, and to help cope with the ebb and flow of stricter isolation measures in response to periodic surges of COVID-19 cases.
We must also play our part by encouraging and helping our loved ones to stay connected with us. This can be accomplished with frequent phone calls, socially distant visits when and where permitted, and regular virtual visits.
If you don’t know for sure, ask what your loved one’s nursing home or long-term care facility is doing to help their residents cope. If you are concerned about the adverse effects of isolation on your loved one, contact your local Adult Protective Services Agency or legal representative for support. It’s OK to report suspected mistreatment even if you don’t know for sure that it’s happening.
This column originally appeared in The Daily Memphian.