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North Dakota nursing homes hoping for new normal

BISMARCK – Administrator Tammra Peterson knows how important visitation is for her residents at Bethel Lutheran Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Williston.

She said she still remembers when one of her residents got to see her family after missing them for months. Even though the resident has memory problems, she was able to recognize her family and smiled when she saw them.

“It gives me goosebumps even now hearing about how she lit up. She recognized her family and was just so overwhelmed,” Peterson said. “The emotions you feel, It truly is something that you can’t even explain.”

Long-term care facilities across the state have had to limit visitation as a safety precaution during the pandemic. While some facilities allow in-person visits with masks and social distancing in mind, others are only able to have compassionate care or end-of-life care visits for their residents.

At the 2021 Legislature, Sen. Kristin Roers, R-Fargo, has introduced Senate Bill 2145 which would allow residents to assign “designated caregivers.” If passed, these caregivers would be able to freely visit the resident to offer physical, spiritual or emotional support. Administrators said their residents need this support.

Peterson said since they have not been able to go 14 days without having a positive case, they have not had regular visitation since last March. She said this has been hard for her residents.

“Bethel has been pretty unfortunate when it comes to that,” Peterson said.

Facilities have had to come up with alternative ways to keep residents in touch with their families. They rely heavily on phone calls and virtual meetings like Facetime or occasionally have families visit outside when the weather permits.

Grant Richardson, a senior executive at Bethany Retirement Living in Fargo, said plexiglass barriers make all the difference during in-person visits since residents can visit with their families without a mask.

“Those have been a godsend,” Richardson said. “You can see a twinkle in an eye or a tear, but being able to see a whole face and the emotions they may be having is much more visible and makes communication easier.”

Richardson said residents also talk with their families through windows, with their hands pressed against the glass. He said he cannot describe how the sight makes him feel.

“On the one hand it’s sweet and moving, and on the other hand it’s frustrating and disappointing that we have to do that,” Richardson said.

Administrator Sandy Gerving from Marian Manor Healthcare Center in Glen Ullin said they have taken extra steps to ensure that their residents get the social interactions they need. She said the staff makes sure that each resident gets at least one visit a day to keep them in high spirits.

Gerving said with extra precautions, residents have occasionally been able to leave to see their family for special events. One resident got to attend a wedding so that he could be a part of a family photo.

“We do have some that they have gone out for a family event but then they get quarantined for 14 days when they come back,” Gerving said. “But for them, it’s well worth it.”

Mental health has been a major concern for administrators. Some residents have shown a decline in cognitive function and in their overall health. In these instances, administrators said family visitation is made a priority.

Richardson said while some of his residents have had a decline in mental health, they are coping and try to maintain a positive attitude.

“They’ve been remarkably resilient,” Richardson said. “This isn’t their first challenge and through their lifetimes, they have learned to accommodate and deal with whatever cards they have been dealt.”

The dispersal of the COVID-19 vaccine has administrators hopeful that things will soon return to normal. Peterson said most of her residents have taken the first dose of the vaccine and are ready to see their families again.

“Our fingers are crossed,” Peterson said. “It’s the first time we’ve gotten this close to that point since it all started, so we’re very excited and we’re hopeful this is going to bring a positive change.”

Richardson said everyone at Bethany who wanted it has gotten the vaccine. He said after 10 long months, residents can start to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“We indeed hope that this is the beginning of the end and that we can return to whatever normal is after this in the near future,” Richardson said. “We’re hopeful, and hope can drive a lot of things.”

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