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Love from a distance: Families struggle with isolation from nursing homes

Elise Rubin of Commack, who has not been

Elise Rubin of Commack, who has not been able to visit her mother in a nursing home due to COVID-19 restrictions, talks about being able to see her now that her mom has been moved to a room with a window. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

Each day since March, 90-year-old Edith Mishkin looks out the window of her room at Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Commack to acknowledge her special guests: daughters Elise and Barbara.

It’s a tradition the daughters started after COVID-19 forced nursing homes to stop allowing visitors, leaving some residents to live in isolation, away from family.

The daughters were last able to step inside the center, and kiss and hug their mother, on March 13. Now they can only blow kisses through the glass.

"We are lucky she has a ground-floor room. Otherwise, it would be much more difficult to see her in person," said Elise Rubin of Commack.

Rubin comes to the facility on Hauppauge Road every afternoon after she is done teaching at Commack High School. "As it is, she cries all the time, because she wants us to take her out. It’s very difficult for all of us. It’s very upsetting," Rubin said.

Mishkin’s family is not alone. Many Long Island nursing homes can’t have visitors because of a mandate from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in September that a facility must go 14 days without a patient or staff member testing positive for COVID-19. The directive had been even more stringent during the worst of the pandemic, at 28 days.

Nursing home employees are tested weekly, which means one positive test at a facility with hundreds of employees resets the clock. At Gurwin, where between 900 and 1,100 employees are tested, "It’s not practical for us to go 14 days without one positive test, so we are going to be restricted on visitations," said Stuart B. Almer, CEO of Gurwin Healthcare System, which operates the nursing home.

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Some families call the rules Draconian, even though they acknowledge the restrictions have lowered nursing home outbreaks.

Dolores Zanchelli of Deer Park, whose mother, Gina Compierchio, is on the fourth floor at Gurwin, said nursing home employees could bring the COVID-19 virus into a facility "just as easily as a family member, so why not allow us to come in, if we are tested? Have us go through the same process that they do.

"There are people living in nursing homes who think their families have abandoned them, and that’s terrible. It’s tragic," Zanchelli continued. "I used to visit my mother every day, where I can see her skin, give her a pedicure and brush her hair."

Now, Zanchelli video chats with her mom daily, "But that isn’t the same."

Kelley Trifiletti of Yaphank said she and her family should be allowed to visit her 94-year-old father, who is at the Long Island State Veterans Home in Stony Brook, as long as they take precautions such as wearing personal protective equipment.

"Why can't we gown up, wear the proper PPE, and follow all the rules?" Trifiletti said. "In life, I'm very careful, and taking the proper precautions. There is a way to do this safely."

She said she's only seen her father twice since the lockdown began in March.

"My dad, thankfully, is very coherent, so he understands," Trifiletti said. "Imagine if you have a loved one who isn't as coherent? They would feel completely abandoned. It's so heartbreaking."

Some Albany lawmakers are advocating to allow essential caregivers to assist with loved ones in nursing homes. Bills introduced in the Assembly and Senate are in committee.

The restrictions, however, have worked, according to the State Department of Health.

"DOH continues to assist facilities statewide that are currently managing COVID-19 clusters and prepared for a second wave," the agency wrote in a statement. "Given the increase in cases nationally and on Long Island, DOH will continue to monitor the data, and now is not the time for people to let their guard down."

From March to Nov. 23, there were 325 confirmed deaths in Nassau County nursing homes, along with 246 presumed coronavirus deaths. During that same period, there were 560 confirmed deaths, plus 230 presumed coronavirus deaths, in Suffolk nursing homes.

Suffolk had the most confirmed COVID-19 nursing home deaths in the state, according to the state health department. Nassau had the third-highest number, after Suffolk and Queens counties.

But most of those deaths came earlier in the pandemic.

From late July through the week ending Oct. 26, there were only two deaths reported by the state at Long Island nursing homes. From Nov. 2 through Nov. 23, as COVID-19 numbers have climbed in the region, the state said eight nursing home residents have died on Long Island.

The Long Island numbers do not include nursing home residents who died outside a nursing home since the pandemic started, such as if they were taken to a hospital for COVID-19 and died there.

Even so, executives at nursing homes said they understand the frustration and mental anguish the rules have had on family members and residents, even as they offered optimism that a COVID-19 vaccine will be made available to nursing home residents and staff later this month.

"We are empathetic and distraught for them, and we want the family members to interact with their loved ones," said Gerard Kaiser, executive director of skilled nursing facility services at Northwell Health, which operates nursing homes in Manhasset, Riverhead and Valley Stream. All three are unable to allow visitors because at least one staffer has tested positive in the last 14 days.

Huntington Hills Center for Health and Rehabilitation in Melville was able to open for a "little while, but a part-timer tested positive and we’ve stopped visitations," said Ken Knutsen, administrator at the skilled nursing facility. "We were able to get about five weeks of visitations in. It’s all a tragedy. It’s awful to see families unable to get together."

Nursing homes throughout the region have leaned on virtual and drive-by visits to try and bring a sense of normalcy to families.

Ellen Resnick-Tjimos of Bethpage said she stays in contact with her 96-year-old mother at Huntington Hills through virtual visits.

"She doesn’t have a phone, so I make an appointment with their recreation department and they come up to her room with an iPad," Resnick-Tjimos said. "It’s odd. It’s not normal, but it’s something. She often gets depressed after we talk because she can’t see me in person."

At Gurwin, families stand outside while residents are brought to a vestibule, said Nicole Hopper, director of therapeutic recreation at the nursing home.

"The family is 12 feet away, and we have a speaker system so they can hear each other," she said. "They’re 10-minute visits, and a family can sign up for three visits per month."

Meanwhile, for the fortunate ones like Mishkin family on Gurwin’s ground floor, the holidays carry on — albeit with winter coats on the other side of the window. Rubin said Thanksgiving was a hit, and Hanukkah is next, on sundown Dec. 10.

"Sunset is at around 4:20 by then, so we will light the menorah and say our prayers together," Rubin said. "And mom loves her latkes with applesauce, and jelly doughnuts, so we will have all of that, too."

With David Olson

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Ways to connect with nursing home residents

  • Video chats: Many nursing homes have iPads and other technology on-site to help connect family with residents.
  • Ground-floor visits: If your loved one is on the ground floor, some nursing homes allow you to meet from opposite sides of the window.
  • Drive-up visits: At some nursing homes, a loved one's family can drive near the front door, where the resident can say hello from inside.

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