Coronavirus: Tips for Family Members With Loved Ones in Nursing Homes

close up of an elderly person's arm in a hospital bed

The details of the novel coronavirus are still not fully understood, but that hasn’t stopped the virus from spreading at a rate that far exceeds our collective capacity to prevent it.

What is clear: The new coronavirus is now a pandemic, and it is especially threatening to the elderly and individuals with compromised immune systems.

According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), people over the age of 60 are far more likely to develop a severe case of COVID-19 — the disease caused by the coronavirus. For those over 80, the death rate may be as high as 15%. (The overall death rate for coronavirus now stands at 3.4%, compared to 0.1% for seasonal flu.)

These harrowing figures have shown themselves in the number of nursing homes unlucky enough to have been impacted by the virus.

Nursing Homes in the Wake of the Coronavirus

In Washington state, thus far an epicenter for the nationwide outbreak, 5 long-term care facilities were infected with the virus, and officials believe more may be to come. In one home in the city of Kirkland, as many as 23 residents have died.

But it’s not just the infected facilities that have been impacted. Earlier this week, industry leaders recommended locking down elderly care facilities across the country and closing them off to all but essential visitors.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday imposed restrictions on who can visit nursing homes in the state. The governors of Ohio, Washington, and Illinois have enacted similar measures for facilities in their states.

Such moves may be necessary to protect patients, but they are also likely to exacerbate problems that already plague the nursing home community — namely, loneliness, boredom, and despair. Melissa West, a family member of an elderly care patient in Seattle, perhaps put it best in her interview with The New York Times:

“I’m concerned that the loneliness and helplessness will kill [her mother-in-law] quicker than the virus. I just think of her being there by herself. Just sitting in her wheelchair all day. Being trapped and waiting.”

What Can We Do?

So, what can patients and family members do for their loved ones in nursing homes?

Social Distancing: Increasingly, governments and health officials are advocating social distancing — the practice of avoiding crowds or gatherings and maintaining distances of 6 feet between individuals. Such practices were shown to be effective during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which had similar mortality and contagion levels as the coronavirus.

But a nursing home is, almost by definition, a place of gathering. They require staff and medical personnel to mingle among patients, who themselves live among other patients. That means staff and patients will be fighting an uphill battle.

Remote Visiting: In addition to keeping visitors to an absolute minimum, nursing homes and industry leaders are encouraging remote visits. Through the use of FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, and other video chat platforms, patients can still enjoy the company of friends and family, albeit from a long distance.

Don’t Move Patients: The vast majority of experts advise against moving family members home or to another facility. The risk is simply too high, especially considering the variables and uncertainties that still shadow this outbreak.

Elderly patients are in nursing homes because they require personal, on-hand care, and that likely cannot be provided if they are moved to a loved one’s home. This advice has been echoed by both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).

Sanitize Everything: Sanitization is, of course, very important. While medical facilities have their protocols for sanitizing and disinfecting equipment as well as personnel, such measures are likely to be tightened during an outbreak. That means not sharing medical equipment, accessories, stationery, pens, attire, cutlery, gadgets, or personal belongings — not merely between patients but between staff as well.

The CDC also recommends placing hand sanitizer in every resident room and stocking all sinks with an adequate supply of soap and paper towels. Staff should be designated to keep up on supplies of sanitation equipment, as well as tissues, face masks, gloves, gowns, and respirators.

Nursing Home Compare: The government also maintains a website for evaluating the quality and care of nursing homes around the country with a 5-star rating system. You can visit that website for a site-specific review of a nursing home’s record on sanitation and infection control, as well as overall patient experience.

Advice for Everyone

Despite the considerable alarm that has risen with the spread of the coronavirus, most experts say we are still within the early stages of a pandemic. Many more people will be infected in the coming weeks, and it’s anyone’s guess how events will unfold.

Supplies of much-needed equipment and materials may be in short supply, especially as cases ramp up. This only underscores the importance of taking voluntary steps to limit exposure.

The AARP and health officials recommend the following protocols be adopted in all nursing homes:

  • Use gowns, gloves, face masks, and goggles when treating patients.
  • Place residents suspected of having the virus in single rooms with closed doors.
  • Close dining rooms and common areas and deliver meals to patients’ rooms.

To further protect those most vulnerable to the illness, individuals facing a relatively low risk of illness — young and healthy people — can follow the general advice laid out by health officials.

That means frequently washing your hands for at least 20 seconds at any given time, avoiding touching your face, avoiding contact with individuals known to have or suspected of having contracted the virus, staying home as much as possible, especially if sick, and cleaning and fully disinfecting surfaces, doorknobs, TV remotes, and other shared items.

It’s also important not to fall victim to the poles of outright panic and calm complacency. The ideal attitude is somewhere in the middle — cognizant of the dangers without letting fear take hold.

Author:Sokolove Law

The Sokolove Law Content Team consists of writers and editors who work alongside the firm’s attorneys and case managers. The team strives to present the most accurate and relevant information for those who need legal help.

Last modified: March 16, 2020

View 15 Sources
  1. AARP, “Nursing Homes, Assisted Living Centers Told to Bar Most Visitors.” Retrieved from https://www.aarp.org/caregiving/health/info-2020/preventing-coronavirus-in-nursing-homes.html. Accessed on March 12, 2020.

  2. CDC, “Interim Additional Guidance for Infection Prevention and Control for Patients with Suspected or Confirmed COVID-19 in Nursing Homes.” Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/healthcare-facilities/prevent-spread-in-long-term-care-facilities.html. Accessed on March 12, 2020.

  3. The New York Times, “Nursing Homes Becoming islands of Isolation Amid ‘Shocking’ Mortality Rate.” Retrieved from, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/10/us/coronavirus-nursing-homes-washington-seattle.html. Accessed on March 12, 2020.

  4. Syracuse.com, “Coronavirus in NY: Most nursing homes dogged by poor infection control.” Retrieved from, https://www.syracuse.com/coronavirus/2020/03/coronavirus-in-ny-most-nursing-homes-dogged-by-poor-infection-control.html. Accessed on March 12, 2020.

  5. Forbes, “What You Should Know About Coronavirus, Nursing Homes, And Senior Living Communities.” Retrieved from, https://www.forbes.com/sites/howardgleckman/2020/03/09/what-you-should-know-about-coronavirus-nursing-homes-and-senior-living-communities/#3f1608a01de3. Accessed on March 12, 2020.

  6. South Florida Sun-Sentinel, “Florida limits visitors at nursing homes, assisted-living facilities as coronavirus cases rise.” Retrieved from https://www.sun-sentinel.com/coronavirus/fl-ne-elderly-coronavirus-20200311-ksxrtfiolndkljto5acoopgr5q-story.html. Accessed on March 12, 2020.

  7. NBC5 Chicago, “New Guidelines for Illinois Nursing Homes As Coronavirus Spreads.” Retrieved from https://www.nbcchicago.com/news/local/new-guidelines-for-illinois-nursing-homes-as-coronavirus-spreads/2235144/. Accessed on March 12, 2020.

  8. The Verge, “Here’s who’s most at risk from the novel coronavirus.” Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/2020/3/11/21173157/coronavirus-health-effects-age-covid-risk-diabetes-hypertension-disease-isolation. Accessed on March 12, 2020.

  9. World Health Organization, “Report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).” Retrieved from https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/who-china-joint-mission-on-covid-19-final-report.pdf. Accessed on March 12, 2020.

  10. Healthline, “The Flu: Facts, Statistics, and You.” Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/influenza/facts-and-statistics#1. Accessed on March 12, 2020.

  11. Business Insider, “WHO Says The Coronavirus Global Death Rate Is 3.4%, Higher Than Earlier Figures.” Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/who-confirms-coronavirus-global-death-rate-rises-fatalities-numbers-2020-3. Accessed on March 12, 2020.

  12. The New York Times, “U.S. Coronavirus Cases Surpass 1,000: Full Map.” Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html. Accessed on March 12, 2020.

  13. KIRO7, “Coronavirus in Washington state: A timeline of the outbreak.” Retrieved from https://www.kiro7.com/news/local/coronavirus-washington-state-timeline-outbreak/IM65JK66N5BYTIAPZ3FUZSKMUE/. Accessed on March 12, 2020.

  14. CDC, “Interim US Guidance for Risk Assessment and Public Health Management of Persons with Potential Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Exposures: Geographic Risk and Contacts of Laboratory-confirmed Cases.” Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/php/risk-assessment.html. Accessed on March 12, 2020.

  15. Quartz, “This chart of the 1918 Spanish flu shows why social distancing works.” Retrieved from https://qz.com/1816060/a-chart-of-the-1918-spanish-flu-shows-why-social-distancing-works/. Accessed on March 12, 2020.