COVID made the emotional decision of choosing senior care even harder

stacey dmn article

Families must ask about infection protocol and vaccination rates.

In the spring of 2020, the life-threatening dangers of COVID-19 became evident, and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins advised families with elderly loved ones in
nursing homes to bring them home.

His recommendation, while maybe unrealistic, was well-intentioned and based on facts. Senior care communities were dangerous places during the first year of the pandemic. Almost one-third of U.S. deaths from COVID-19 occurred among residents and staff in long-term care facilities.

Seniors living in these facilities make up about 1% of the population, yet they account for 40% of fatalities to date, according to a New York Times analysis. But the reality was (and still is) that the average family cannot safely provide round-the-clock care at home that some elderly adults need. Our staff and volunteers at The Senior Source’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program walk countless families through the complex and emotional decision of choosing a long-term care setting for a loved one, and we’ve seen how the pandemic has
made this decision more fraught with emotion and fear, even with the vaccine available.

Seventy percent of seniors will need residential care, from short-term rehab stay to lifetime care. Here are some new factors to consider when choosing a care facility in a post-COVID-19 world:

Infection protocol

In the early months of the pandemic, personal protective equipment was hard to find, as were COVID-19 tests. Vaccines were not available. Caregivers and staff in
long-term care facilities were exposed to risk themselves, and many are still traumatized by their experiences. Staffing shortages still persist in these communities, by the way.

Among the wide range of residential senior care, from unregulated independent living to state-regulated nursing homes and memory care to federally regulated independent senior living communities were comparable to those of other older adults living in the same geographic area. But mortality rates were higher in assisted living and memory care communities, and they were even higher in skilled nursing facilities.

So why were residents in nursing homes so vulnerable to COVID-19? At least partly due to the health status of seniors living in those settings, those with chronic medical conditions like heart disease or diabetes are more vulnerable to COVID-19. Memory care communities were particularly challenged as many residents were unable to comply with infection control precautions such as wearing masks.

So now, seniors and their families considering long-term care options must add questions about infection control to their long list of worries when shopping for a facility. What is this community doing for infection control? What are their procedures? Are there enough staff to ensure compliance of infection protocols?

Our ombudsman program staff and volunteers regularly visit nursing homes and assisted living communities in Dallas County. We monitor complaints related to infection control as well as cases of abuse or neglect. Sharing what we learned about the nature and frequency of complaints in any community helps families have as much information as possible to make a wise and life-giving decision.

By Stacey Malcolmson
1:30 AM on Dec 12, 2021

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