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When long-term care facilities locked down in March, no one imagined the doors would be closed to visitors for nearly a year. And while many facilities are doing their best to maintain safety and a sense of connection for residents, families on the outside say the isolation is unbearable. 

Becky Liscum spoke to WGN’s Medical Watch team last March when she has a virtual visits with her mom, Joan, who at the time, was a resident at Terra Vista Memory Care in west suburban Oak Brook Terrace.

“We started with a tele-visit and a window visit at the same time,” Liscum said. “As time went on, the window visits just did not work for her as a dementia patient. It was just too confusing. She didn’t know why I couldn’t come in and I didn’t want to get her upset.”

But the new reality was so far away from the loving touch they were allowed just a few months before. During the summer, there were socially-distanced outdoor visits. 

“She was confused and I couldn’t come give her a hug. I have a lot of pictures of her reaching out,” Liscum said. “But it was still great to see her. And it made a difference.”

Then, Liscum got the news she had feared throughout the pandemic.

“She did contract Covid. I got the call October 18. That is when my world changed,” she said.

While the 90-year-old remained asymptomatic, her health declined in the weeks that followed. That’s when Liscum advocated for compassionate care visits. 

When she finally saw her mom, Liscum said it was hard.

“She had just deteriorated,” she said. “And when I got to the room I said, ‘Mom, I’m here,’ and I put my hand on her back. She was facing the wall in the fetal position and hadn’t been responsive. When she heard my voice, she turned herself over and we hugged. It meant everything to her.”

As family members advocate for more routine access to their loved ones, especially now as Covid vaccinations are being administered to staff and residents, the Illinois Department of Public Health told WGN News:

“With community spread declining significantly since our fall peak, long-term care facilities in all regions of the state can now allow for indoor visitation as long as they meet Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services criteria (Phases) and with safety guidelines:

  • There have been no new Covid cases in the nursing home for 14 days
  • The nursing home is not experiencing staff shortages
  • The nursing home has adequate supplies of personal protective equipment and essential cleaning and disinfection supplies
  • The nursing home has adequate access to testing for COVID-19
  • And referral hospitals have bed capacity”

Terra Vista executive director Natalie McFarland shared her facility’s vision.

“We foresee being able to do testing. We do screening of each of the families, vital checks, temperature checks,” she said. “I think it is coming to some sort of middle ground creating that balance. We understand the risks involved with Covid, but we also understand the risks involved with residents not seeing their loved ones and not having the in person interactions.”

“What I want to do is continue to be a voice to get it into state law so people can get into these facilities and see their families,” Liscum said.

Bruce Carmona has been in a northwest suburban nursing home for two and a half years. The 63-year-old broke his neck after he fell into shallow water. Now he’s paralyzed and missing regular visits with his brother David Carmona. 

“I miss joking around with him, I miss playing catch with him. He used to bring me cookies, don’t get that much anymore,” he said “You’re not taken care of all the time in a nursing facility like you are in a family environment, so you have to be an advocate for yourself.”

But David Carmona also helped his brother do physical therapy several times a week, access the nursing home no longer allows due to Covid. 

“He was at the point where he was almost lifting 100 pounds with his arms,” David Carmona said. “He’s probably back down where he’d struggle to get up 20 pounds now, so that’s been very hard for him mentally.”

“I have a lot more anxiety than I used to have,” Bruce Carmona said. “I’m a lot more aggressive. Older people with dementia and Alzheimer’s are asking questions, ‘Why can’t I see my family?’ They walk around, to put it bluntly, like zombies. I mean, they are lost.”

“Develop a schedule. Tell us, ‘You get a half hour today and on this day.’ It makes a difference,” David Carmona said. “Face-to-face is a lot different than doing FaceTime or Zoom or talking on the phone or texting. That physical presence makes a huge difference to them.”

“When I walked down the halls on my way to my mom’s room, I saw people that were formerly very vibrant and they had declined,” Liscum said. “They had declined being alone in their room.”

In the final weeks of Joan’s life, Liscum was able to continue her visits. She was at her mom’s side on November 25 when Joan died.

“It was just everything,” she said. “It gave her peace and I was able to walk her home for this final journey on this earth. And she was not alone.”

Both Liscum and Bruce Carmona are part of Illinois Caregivers for Compromise — a group lobbying for more access to nursing home residents. In March, the organization plans to display hundreds of signs to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the lockdown and to honor all those who have died in isolation.