Connection matters now more than ever. There is no one who hasn’t been touched by this pandemic. Staying home, avoidance of friends and group meetings, socially distancing ourselves, and the masks are all inconveniences to be tolerated for the greater good.

Yet, there is one group that has not had the touch or connection from their loved ones or even the liberty of going to the grocery store. In March, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) took the unprecedented step of removing visitation to skilled nursing and assisted living facilities by all family, friends and community members.

I want to stress unprecedented because since the beginning of the Older Americans Act and the Ombudsman Program, residents’ rights have been promoted and protected under law. The federal Nursing Home Reform Law requires nursing homes to “promote and protect the rights of each resident” and stresses individual dignity and self-determination including the right to access visitors of his or her choosing, at any time.

It soon became apparent that there were unintended consequences of removing visitors to spare our most vulnerable from possible exposure to the virus. Within two months, this ombudsman was hearing of the rise in resident depression scores, loss of hope, confusion, weight loss, incontinence and decline. The incidence of resident to resident assaults, expressions of desire to die, feelings of being in jail, anger and frustration have been reported to me and other ombudsmen across the nation.

The brunt of resident emotional support has fallen to our much beleaguered long-term care workers. They have done their best to fill in for families and visitors in addition to attending to all care needs.

Your ombudsman program recognized early in this crisis that virtual resident contact and communication needed to be made a priority and supplied all facilities in our region with an iPad tablet. Residents and families have used the device to stay connected, celebrate milestone birthdays, see new grandchildren and connect with their physician. Community-wide efforts to visit residents through windows made the isolation somewhat bearable. Community members, churches, organizations, individuals have all worked to cheer and lessen isolation. Thank you to each of you who reached out to make a difference to our elders!

Recognizing the suffering by residents and their families, the ombudsman program has worked to bring awareness and promote resident interests at a systemic level.

The Colorado State Ombudsman has relayed reports from local ombudsmen about the effect of isolation to state government. By June, the governor’s strike force team, had released a policy allowing for socially distanced outside visits so that residents could connect with friends and family.

The same task force recently released through ombudsman advocacy and in anticipation of our cooler Colorado weather, an indoor visitation policy. There are some critical factors tied to indoor visits; community case rates. In counties with a 14-day case rate of less than or equal to 25 new active cases there are no testing requirements for visitors. When the case rate rises to greater than 26, visitors must provide documentation of a negative COVID-19 test within 48 hours preceding the visit.

Residents’ Rights Month is held every October. This year’s theme, “Connection Matters,” emphasizes connections — to family, to friends and to the community — as an essential component of good health and quality of life for residents. The months of restrictions on visitation in long-term care and the inability of residents, families and friends to be together during the pandemic has emphasized the importance of connection, of relationships, and the impact they have on our well-being.

Please take a moment to think of our long-term care residents, make an impact in their lives and be responsible with your actions in our community. It could mean the difference between life and death. Your local ombudsman is available at Region 10/Area Agency on Aging at 970-765-3131.

Sandy Walker is the lead LTC ombudsman at Region 10.

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