5 Ways to Help Families Understand Visiting Restrictions at Senior Living Facilities During COVID-19
Throughout the Coronavirus pandemic, social distancing has become the “new normal.” Nowhere have these guidelines been as necessary as in senior living and long-term care facilities.
It’s no secret that the virus has been particularly dangerous for vulnerable older adults, and senior care center staff have worked hard to protect their patients. As restrictions ease up in many areas, they are still necessary for senior care. Here’s how to help families understand visiting restrictions during COVID-19.
As most of the nation begins tentatively emerging from isolation and establishing a “new normal,” seniors are still very much at risk. Health officials are still encouraging people over the age of 65 to use caution and limit their social interactions as much as possible.
These guidelines are especially important for senior living and long-term care facilities, which often see the most vulnerable population to this indiscriminate virus. When caring for the elderly, senior care staff have learned that there’s no such thing as being too careful.
But many families are also aching to see their loved ones. They want to hug their grandparents and visit them after months of distance. It’s a tenuous balance for those who direct senior care centers. How can you help families understand the continued visiting restrictions are a necessary action to keep patients safe and protected?
Here are 5 ways that senior care staff can help make visiting restrictions easier on the families of residents.
1. Maintain Open Communication About Visiting Restrictions During COVID-19
Now is a critical time to keep resident family members updated with clear and constant communication and updates. The past few months have been confusing for everyone as guidelines change and more research emerges about the nuances of the virus. Information is evolving at a rapid pace.
Help families feel like they’re “in the loop” by communicating with them clearly about ongoing visiting restrictions, illness prevention, and changing policies. Facility management should send out updates at least once a week.
Whenever appropriate, include information about any new positive cases of COVID-19 in your community, what you and your staff are doing to prevent any spread, and any changes in daily operations. Transparency is crucial, but remember to follow all HIPAA laws when sharing information. The names and identifying information of staff and residents who have tested positive (or negative) should, of course, be kept private.
Naturally, family members will have questions and concerns about their loved one’s safety and well-being during this time. Encourage open lines of communication. Assure families that you are taking all the proper measures to protect their loved ones. It’s a good idea to share positive information as well—what activities are the residents engaged in? For families who feel distant from their loved ones, these anecdotes provide comfort.
2. Make Upper Management Available for Questions and Concerns
While it’s essential that all staff—from aides to receptionists, nurses, and community coordinators—are kept informed and educated on the steps your facility is taking to keep residents safe, upper management should be the primary communication between resident families. Community directors and department heads should be available if family members call with questions or concerns.
Families want to hear from someone at the top who can offer them reassurance and information. Even though you may have a lot on your plate, especially right now, it’s critical to interface with families as much as possible. Realizing there’s someone in charge, following the latest health guidelines, and working with local authorities to protect seniors will have a significant impact on residents’ family members.
As a facility director, now is the time to make yourself available as the face of communication for your facility. Make sure your department heads—specifically in areas directly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, like nursing and lifestyle directors—are available to field questions from concerned family.
3. Continue to Follow DHS, CDC and OSHA Guidelines
As the world begins to emerge from their COVID-19 restrictions, senior care facility visitation guidelines should remain the same. Preventing the spread of illness should always be your primary concern, and the high risk for senior citizens hasn’t changed. Now is NOT the time to roll back restrictions on your facility, even if your area is currently low-risk.
One of the most challenging aspects of the virus is that many people are asymptomatic; others are contagious for several days before displaying visible symptoms. Testing is crucial for staff and any outside visitors to your facility. Unless your facility has a precise method for testing all visitors for the virus beyond simple temperature checks, it’s likely too soon to take a risk.
As officials are lifting Safer-at-Home guidelines across states and counties, many people are under the impression that all businesses should follow suit, including senior care facilities. Family members may expect facilities have lifted restrictions on visitors, and think they can call on their loved ones again or take them on errands and outings. Unfortunately, easing up on these visitation restrictions now may present a high risk to your facility.
DHS-recommended Safer at Home orders weren’t the driving force of operational changes in most senior living communities—specifically pertaining to visitors, congregate dining, or lifestyle program changes. Health officials meant for these guidelines to protect the general population, rather than those most vulnerable to COVID-19.
Let families know that even if cities and counties are lightening up restrictions, your facility’s priority remains to protect the health and safety of your residents and staff. Continue to follow DHS, CDC, and OSHA guidelines for operational restrictions on senior care.
4. Encourage and Enable Virtual Connections to Combat Loneliness
Of course, social interaction is also vital to your residents’ health and well-being. The effects of loneliness and isolation can be extremely damaging to seniors, even possibly lowering their immunity. Staff must consider seniors’ mental health in their care plan.
With visitor restrictions still in place, now is the perfect time to combat the effects of isolation by encouraging virtual visits with family and friends. Senior communities are taking steps to keep their residents virtually connected to the outside world during a time when outside activity is limited. Senior citizens might not be quite as tech-savvy as their younger counterparts, so help facilitate the virtual visit process by providing laptops and tablets with video chat apps like Skype or FaceTime. Consider a checkout program, allowing residents to borrow technology devices when needed, as residents might not have access to a smartphone.
In addition to virtual visits with family, organize ways for residents to stay connected virtually with their community. Providing resources like online educational videos, online games, puzzles, or movie viewings are great ways to use technology to bring your community together during a time of isolation. Coordinate with community groups to organize videos of neighbors, family and friends, and other community members sending love, support, and well wishes to your residents. Share inspiring news stories, start an online book club, or connect your residents with online communities for other seniors to share topics they love.
5. Remind Families to Continue Safe Practices for Making Deliveries
For some families, dropping off groceries or other essential item deliveries is the only way they can connect to their loved ones, if only for a few minutes. Sometimes they can only wave through a window and drop off items at the front desk. It’s challenging—emotionally, mentally, and physically—to keep residents a safe distance from their family members, but remember it is for their health and safety!
Continue to remind families of the importance of following safe social distancing and hand sanitizing when making deliveries to their loved ones. Ask families to remain diligent about best practices for infection control: use disinfectant wipes, wash hands frequently, use hand sanitizer, and wear face coverings while out in public and especially when making a delivery at your facility.
If family members choose to do a window visit, encourage them to wear a mask and keep a six-foot distance from their loved one, even through the window. In warmer weather, outdoor visits should include masks and always be carried out at a safe distance, if your facility chooses to permit that type of interaction. Follow the advice of health officials and consider whether you have the right space to accommodate safe outdoor visits and resident activities.
This unprecedented time is hard on everyone, especially senior care residents and their families. It’s essential to communicate to family members that all restrictions on visiting are for the health and well-being of their loved ones, and more importantly, will eventually end. As the head of your senior care facility, continue to do what you can to keep spirits high, residents healthy, and staff appreciated for their efforts to care for every resident.
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