By PFund Foundation Grant Writer, Kate Mohn of Obvio Group
Over the past year, I’ve been lucky enough to have my own public-health and healthcare expert just a phone call away: Nurse Alice, aka my mother. Nurse Alice retired in 2019, but was a registered nurse and worked for decades in public health, elder and long-term care, and served as a director of nursing in a long-term care facility. She’s my go-to person when I have to figure out how to navigate healthcare in this country. I recently reached her by phone on the windswept tundra of western Minnesota to talk about nursing homes, assisted living, and other types of long-term care facilities and how the pandemic has impacted them.
PFund: Nurse Alice, you have worked in a variety of short- and long-term care settings over the years, including nursing homes and assisted living. You have also had loved ones in long-term care facilities. During the pandemic, many people have struggled with how to advocate for their loved ones in congregate care settings. What advice would you give to someone trying to manage care and advocate at a distance?
Nurse Alice: I’d say that the best thing to start with is to do your homework online and research any care facilities that you are considering for your family member. You want to both look at the facility’s website to see how they are marketing themselves, but you also want to use the Medicare website to review the ratings any facility has—it’s an impartial rating on things like safety and infection control protocols. And what a facility looks like isn’t necessarily an indication of quality. I’ve dealt with ones in the past that had beautiful facilities but were spending all their money on the buildings and not enough on nurses, for example. You should ask about what kind of resident-to-staff ratios a facility has as well.
It also helps to ask around in the community where a facility is located. Tap into your personal network or people who know the community. And especially if you are at a distance, if you have another person who is local to the facility and can visit your loved one on a regular basis, that really helps. It means that the staff will see that your family member has someone who cares about them and visits them regularly, and it means that whoever the designated person is with the home can also get to know and become comfortable with the staff. It really will make a huge difference in quality of care if you have someone visiting your family member and the facility on a very regular basis.
And if anyone in Minnesota is concerned about the care a family member is receiving, they should call the Office of the Ombudsman for Long-Term Care at 651-431-2555 or toll free at 1-800-657-3591 to request advocacy services.
With vaccinations ramping up it seems like we are starting to see the beginning of the end of the pandemic. Still, it’s important for people to remain cautious as we continue to vaccinate the general public.
Social isolation is not good for people in nursing homes or other care facilities. We know that and the last year has been really tough on residents. We’re now seeing that vaccines have been distributed to healthcare workers, so staff and medical personnel in homes are not going to expose residents, and many residents have now been vaccinated as well.
It’s a good idea to remain cautious, but I think this spring and summer we will see more social activities happening again for residents. I can see things like church social groups being held on patios or outdoors, or residents masking up and a few of them being taken out on a pontoon to go fishing. Anything outdoors this spring and summer—even just playing cards at a picnic table on a nice day, for example—is a low-risk way for people who haven’t been vaccinated yet to see their loved ones in care facilities.
It seems that COVID is forcing our society to re-think some of the ways we deal with eldercare and nursing facilities. What kind of changes could you see the pandemic having long-term?
I think as facilities modernize moving forward, they should think more about creating large spaces where people can still gather but at a distance—both indoors and outdoors. I could see things like flexible patio spaces or three-season porches being larger and more common, plus they would encourage people to spend time outdoors and in the sunshine, which we also know is good for people’s mental health.
We may also see a continued shift away from more congregate settings into private rooms being the norm and facilities may work to not rotate staff as much between various units. Moving forward, a lot of these changes wouldn’t just help nursing homes and assisted living facilities better handle the next pandemic, but also hopefully provide better and more humane care to their residents.
The latest information from the Minnesota Department of Health:
Visiting people in long-term care: Minnesotans now have more options for visiting with loved ones in nursing homes, assisted living, and other long-term care facilities. In most circumstances, residents can also leave the facility for less than 24 hours without having to quarantine when they come back, as long as they were not in close contact with someone who has COVID-19. To help lower risk, wear a mask that fits well, social distance, wash hands often, and stick to outdoor visits when possible. Call the facility before visiting to learn more.
Vaccine eligibility: Every Minnesotan age 16 years and older is now eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine. All COVID-19 vaccines are safe, effective, and free. Contact your healthcare provider, check local pharmacies, or sign up on the Vaccine Connector. Minnesota still does not have enough vaccines for everyone who wants one, so you may have to wait to get an appointment. It takes two weeks after your final dose for your body to build up immune protection.
Find vaccine providers: https://mn.gov/covid19/vaccine/find-vaccine/locations/index.jsp
Find pharmacy appointments: https://vaccinefinder.org/
Vaccine Connector: https://mn.gov/covid19/vaccine/connector/connector.jsp (available in English, Spanish, Hmong, Somali)
Test after gatherings: COVID-19 is spreading in our communities. If you attended a gathering with people who don’t live with you, get tested for COVID-19 at least five days after the event and continue to monitor for symptoms for 14 days. If you start to feel sick at any point, get tested right away and stay home, even if you’ve been vaccinated.
Schedule a testing appointment: https://mn.gov/covid19/get-tested/index.jsp or contact your health care provider
Order an at-home test kit: https://www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/coronavirus/testsites/athome.html