My mother suffers from advanced dementia. She has been in memory care in Coeur d’Alene for over a year and a half and was in an assisted living home in Eagle for three years prior.
The realities of memory care are difficult, debilitating, and tragic, even with regular visitation by family. We have discovered that only immediate family members visit memory care residents, often only a spouse or specific child will visit regularly and because of the cognitive level of most residents, phone conversations do not fill the void of in-person visits. Without holding my hand, listening to music together, retelling family stories again and again, or simply going outside together for a walk, my mother suffered a severe mental, emotional, and physical decline. She called me by my name prior to the three-month visitation suspension due to the coronavirus. She now is confused by my presence.
Let’s be clear. Dementia patients will not recover or get better. They will die from the disease. The care they receive is palliative, not curative. That said, we obviously need to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in memory care facilities.
Many senior living facilities in Idaho did not reopen for visitation during Stage 4 of Gov. Brad Little’s Rebound Plan. My mother’s facility opened for limited one-hour visits for two weeks and then suspended visitation due to a surge of COVID-19 in Kootenai County. Very few residents or tourists in our community wear masks, instead they frequently gather for large events, party at bars, eat at restaurants, and ignore social distancing. After five visits with my mom, where we could walk, talk, and hold hands, I am now no longer able to see her. Does our society really prioritize business and fun over caring for our most vulnerable elders?
We chose the easy route, shuttering seniors away, without weighing the emotional and spiritual well-being of an already isolated demographic. How can we ethically isolate our seniors from those they love for what may be the last months of their lives?
Do we really believe that a spouse or child visiting is a greater risk than the caregivers who see them every day? These extraordinary workers provide amazing care. They are underpaid for the demanding work they perform. They often have multiple jobs, families at home, and are often young and susceptible to becoming asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19. Current staff screenings at facilities is not enough to protect our seniors. Their workload has increased because family members are not there to provide care relief. Turnover has increased. It is a difficult job made substantially harder by the pandemic.
Why is the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare not testing caregivers at all if facilities and the governor are concerned enough to shutdown visitations?
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that during the pandemic an additional 250 deaths occur per day with people suffering some form of dementia, not necessarily due to COVID-19. Robert Anderson, chief of mortality and statistics with the CDC, attributes many of these deaths to be collateral damage from the loss of steady routines and family visits—a fact we should take to heart.
I do not want my mother or anyone in care to die alone. I refuse to accept another lockdown, especially if it is because people have to have a drink in a bar. Let’s design a solution that allows for visitation. We cannot sit by while our elders suffer.
A former resident of the Wood River Valley, David Passaro lives in Coeur d’Alene.