ENID, Okla. — With the first and second rounds of the COVID-19 vaccine being administered to residents and staff at local nursing homes and senior living centers, Steven Walkingstick said there’s finally a light at the end of the tunnel.
This hope that comes with the vaccine, though, also still comes with restrictions in the elderly communities.
“As the restrictions are somewhat loosened ... a lot of stuff will come back ... But it’s not going to be like flipping a light switch,” said Walkingstick, executive director of The Commons. “It’s more of a dimmer — that we’re going to slowly turn that dimmer switch on, and as that switch gets turned, there will be more opportunities for the community to get back involved.”
Nursing homes in Enid received doses of the Moderna vaccine in late December, almost two weeks after the first shipment of the Pfizer vaccine, which was restricted to hospital and health department settings in Garfield and other surrounding counties.
Although 2020 is over, COVID-19 is not. Oklahoma has had over 320,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 2,700 deaths, and people 50 and older make up a combined 95.43% of those deaths. Enid in particular has over 5,100 cases and 43 deaths. Since Jan. 1, there have been three days where more than 5,000 cases were reported statewide in a single day.
Since the pandemic began in March, the staff at nursing homes and senior living centers say they have been doing their best to ensure the safety and well-being of their residents.
“We’re taking care of the Greatest Generation,” said Mike Weatherford, marketing coordinator for Greenbrier Village and family guide for skilled nursing.
For the past 10 months, life has been different for staff and older residents in independent living, assisted living and nursing home facilities as the facilities went into lockdown and then quarantine, and followed recommended guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Walkingstick said The Commons has always had high infection control standards, but since the pandemic, it has exponentially increased the procedures in place.
“That’s kind of a big umbrella,” Walkingstick said. “That goes from all the screenings that we do for residents, staff and any folks that do come through our doors that maybe are partners, to the sanitation that the housekeeping staff has done, to the way that meals are delivered and prepared, to the way that laundry is done.”
Employees at the centers are screened and must wear protective masks and face shields before entering buildings, as well as full personal protective equipment (PPE) if interacting with a COVID-19 positive resident. Families visiting residents who are in end-of-life care are also screened and must wear PPE before visiting their family member.
Greenbrier once a week tests its residents in assisted living, the nursing home and at the Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, and tests staff in those places twice a week, Weatherford said, and they watch for symptoms daily.
Scott Bushong, executive director of Golden Oaks, said if symptoms start showing in either a resident or staff member, the person is immediately tested, and if positive for COVID-19, residents are transferred to a COVID-19 wing, as are others who were possibly exposed are tested.
They said the guidelines for COVID-19 are tedious, but health care workers have done it diligently since March.
“I never would have thought (the pandemic) would have lasted this long,” Weatherford said. “This is crazy, but I see people every day come to work. They get screened, they roll up their sleeves and they get to work.”
Life in nursing homes, senior living centers
Since March, most residents have had to stay inside the facility, some even within their rooms.
With cafeterias closed, residents had to eat staff-delivered meals in their rooms. Activities were limited, some virtual, and visitations increased restrictions as the COVID-19 numbers fluctuated.
“We’re continuing to not have visitors on campus, and it’s certainly created quite a toll on our residents,” Bushong said. “We worry day-to-day about their physical well-being, in terms of being isolated and separated from their loved ones.”
To help, local facilities have gone above and beyond to help keep up residents’ spirits with things like playing virtual Bingo, decorating for Christmas, providing additional resources for mental health and having a resident council to keep residents in the loop.
The facilities have provided for staff, too. At The Commons, employees have access to an emergency food pantry, and The Commons offers hero pay and increased Christmas bonuses. Golden Oaks currently is in the process of implementing an employee assistance program to help out staff affected by the pandemic.
Most of the facilities are not allowing indoor visits, unless it’s an end-of-life situation, and have restrictions on outdoor visitations with most being conducted through windows. Golden Oaks is currently in outbreak testing and isn’t allowing visits at all, Bushong said, but it has iPads that are available for residents to visit with families.
The Commons has outdoor visits, adding heaters outdoors for winter months and new sidewalks to help with those visits, but window visits are the vast majority and are scheduled online. Residents are taken to the window at their scheduled time to visit with families. Greenbrier is also allowing window visits, providing baby monitors inside and outside so the residents and their families can chat.
For Milburn and Mona Burrow, life at Golden Oaks during COVID-19 hasn’t been easy.
The couple has been together for 60 years, and both live at Golden Oaks — Milburn, 84, lives in independent living while Mona, 80, lives in the nursing home, having suffered a stroke a few years ago.
They came to Golden Oaks together about two and a half years ago, Milburn said. Before COVID-19, they were able to see each other and spend time together every day.
Milburn was able to briefly visit with his wife during the pandemic, but he said he hasn’t been able to see her in person since the fall. He said they try to FaceTime, and even though it can be frustrating, it’s good therapy for Mona and he likes to visit with her.
Nowadays, since he hasn’t been able to see Mona, Milburn said he spends his days reading, playing card games on the computer, going for walks and napping. He said it’s been a little harder on Mona since she had been confined to her room at one point, but he said the staff have been wonderful with her, which he is thankful for.
Randy Mitchell’s 95-year-old mother Lucy Mitchell has lived at The Commons for eight years, starting in independent living, then moving to assisted living before moving to long-term care.
His mother has dementia, Randy said, making visitations a little more difficult as she had some trouble understanding window visits, but Randy said he tries to call her several times a day to chat. Now that The Commons is allowing some outdoor visitations, he gets to see her once about every two weeks.
Though living through a pandemic comes with its difficulties, Randy said his mother has lived through and seen a lot, and he finds comfort in knowing that The Commons staff is taking care of her.
“She’s seen a lot in her life, so this is just another day for her,” he said. “She grew up in the Panhandle in the heart of the Depression, the Dust Bowl, so this is nothing to her. I’m happy she’s well cared for. I don’t have to worry about her.”
Hope for the future
Adminstrators said they are looking to open up facilities to the community and to families once cases go down, though the process of reopening will be a slow one.
They administered their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in late December and in early January, and the second doses will come later this month.
Mitchell said he hopes things get back to a more normal state by fall 2021. As a retired Methodist minister, he said he’s just grateful for the days he and his mom are given to live.
“I think slow and steady is the key,” he said.
Milburn and Mona Burrow have both received the first vaccine and will be getting the second one later this month. Milburn got the vaccine without hesitation, saying it’s a “good beginning” to an end.
“It’s not the light switch or the magic pill, but it is a big step forward,” he said.
Milburn is hoping he can see Mona by late spring or early summer and hopes they can see all their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren soon.
He’s even already planning the day he’s reunited with his wife.
“I’ll just tell her I love her,” he said. “There’s some things I’ll have to do, appointments I have to make, but I’m going to take her out to lunch, maybe go to the academy and walk around. It’s got to be safe, of course, but whenever I can, I’m just going to get her out and go for a ride and go to Mazzio’s ... Basically, give her a hug and say, ‘You ready to go?’”