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New Mexican senior citizens are struggling with isolation during coronavirus pandemic

Leah Romero
Las Cruces Sun-News
Photo Illustration

LAS CRUCES – COVID-19 has led to social distancing, mask wearing and countless other changes to everyday life. And while many people are feeling worn out from the isolation, elderly members of the community are especially vulnerable to the side effects of COVID-19 prevention.

Since March 14, when the New Mexico Department of Health ordered nursing homes to limit visitors, retirement homes have been closed to most outsiders and even interaction among residents.

The guidelines set out by the DOH direct facilities to restrict visitors to only those with loved-ones who are receiving end-of-life care.

Even with the restrictions, cases of COVID-19 have been detected in myriad congregate living facilities in New Mexico. As of July 10, the DOH reported 638 patients and 449 staff in nursing homes/assisted living facilities have tested positive for the disease; and 208 patients and three health care workers at those facilities have died.

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Facilities in Doña Ana County have been affected by COVID-19 at a far lower rate than facilities in the northern part of the state. Still, as of July 9, six facilities in the county have positive cases:

  • Blue Horizon Assisted Living
  • Casa del Sol Center
  • Casa de Oro Center
  • Good Samaritan Society
  • Sagecrest Nursing and Rehabilitation Center
  • The Village at Northrise

David Morgan, media and social media manager for the DOH, said facilities are removed from the daily reporting list when they have tested negative for 28 days.

Sandra Crane, a licensed clinical/independent social worker in Las Cruces, contracts with six local facilities to treat patients who are diagnosed with depression, anxiety or mood disorders. She said many of the residents she works with have declined since the pandemic safety measures were put in place.

While caregivers are operating within the COVID-19 guidance they are given, some feel a lack of guidance from the state.

“We started noticing … that our patients stopped eating,” Crane said. “They just gave up.” Virtual communication is available for residents, but Crane said this there is a disconnect and can be difficult for people diagnosed with dementia or who have trouble hearing or seeing.

New Mexico State Long-Term Care Ombudsman Linnea Forsythe, who is in charge of investigating complaints and advocating for the rights of seniors, said similar situations have been seen on a state level. She said long-term care residents are showing increased “depression, listlessness, agitation and failure to thrive due to this extended period of isolation.”

“Isolation can be devastating and deadly. We need to balance the risk of COVID exposure with the very real threat of cutting people off from the very things that make them want to live,” Forsythe said. “We have seen an alarming development that residents are even forgoing critical medical treatment, because they do not want to be quarantined for 14 days when they return from their treatment.”

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While caregivers are operating within the COVID-19 guidance they are given, some feel a lack of guidance from the state. Ray McReynolds, nursing director at The Adobe, said the facility was not ready to handle a health crisis of this magnitude and that this clinical situation has become too political with “the wrong people are making clinical decisions.”

“We just don’t have any endgame,” McReynolds said. “I’ve had three emergency psychiatric admissions in the last four months. I might average one every two or three or four years.”

McReynolds said residents at The Adobe are encouraged to stay in their rooms and the activities at the facility have had to be canceled for safety reasons.

“We’re very blessed to have a great activity director, but it’s not anywhere near the level of what it was,” McReynolds said. “(July 2) she, by the grace of her, she went to the entire building with a snow cone machine and gave them all snow cones and stuff like that. So, it’s not completely gone.”

Gary Coppedge, CEO of Haciendas at Grace Village, said that while residents may be upset about not seeing their families in person, employees at their facility have increased the amount of activities available for residents.

“They’re not isolated. They’re still, you know, they still have lots to do and we keep them as active as they want to.”

However, unlike the state guidelines which require at least one caregiver to 15 residents or fewer, Coppedge said Haciendas at Grace Village has an internal policy for having one employee to every six residents, allowing for more one-on-one time between residents and caregivers.

Coppedge said when the restrictions on family visits are lifted, they want to implement a Plexiglas room at their facility to allow for safe visits.

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“Residents and families need alternatives — we are receiving an overwhelming number of requests for some type of visitation and other alternatives to alleviate these issues,” Forsythe said. “We have submitted visitation policies and ideas and continue to push regulators and decision-makers for sustainable solutions.”

Crane said she is not sure how to address the decline of residents because while socialization is an important factor to well-being, so is preventing COVID-19.

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“I know I have the support of my medical practitioners about how this is a huge thing, Crane said. “And we just don’t know what to do.”

While there may not be an obvious solution to the problem, many facilities as well as the state's Aging and Long-Term Care Department have supported and implemented safe social activities. These include video calls with family and friends, window visits and pen-pals. The ALTSD also has a Create and Connect Program where community members can write letters or create videos that will be shared with residents.

“Residents and their family members need to be given the ability to experience these crucial human interactions with loved ones, fellow residents and providers,” Forsythe said.

Leah Romero is a fellow with the New Mexico Local News Fund and can be reached at lromero@lcsun-news.com or @rromero_leah on Twitter.

Correction: Sandra Crane's title has been corrected in this version of the story.