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Families Find Alternatives To Nursing Homes During Pandemic

A walker rests beside a small nursing home bed.
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For many, the coronavirus pandemic has meant navigating the realities of being a primary caregiver for the first time.

Concern over the spread of the coronavirus has some families opting to move elderly parents out of nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

Even in places without diagnosed cases of coronavirus, communal activities have been suspended and residents are being asked to stay in their own rooms. They can’t have dinner with friends or take part in crafts or game nights.

Diane Arbetta of Sarasota says that seclusion affected the health of her 100-year old mother.

"I did not realize that she would be isolated by herself,” she said. “She did not do well at all. She just deteriorated."

Arbetta was only able to witness her mother's failing health while standing outside and looking through a window but it was clear enough for her to decide to check her mother out of the facility.

"I said well that's enough and when I went to pick her up, she couldn't even stand,” she said. “I looked at my girlfriend and said, 'Oh, this is going to be great. How are we going to take her home?'”

For Arbetta and many others, the pandemic has meant navigating the realities of being a primary caregiver for the first time.

CORONAVIRUS: Complete Coverage From WUSF And Health News Florida

Many loved ones have special needs that would prevent people from caring for them in their own homes. Arbetta can, but as a senior herself, she does need help to make it work. She's getting it with in-home health care.

Jonathan Fleece is the President and CEO of Tidewell Hospice and Stratum Health System. One of its companies, Approved Home Health, serves clients like Arbetta in Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties.

Fleece says even for people committed to taking care of family members at home, the physical, emotional and financial consequences can be overwhelming.

"There is no doubt that that is exhausting over time,” he said.  "It’s a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety and caregivers need a break."

To that end, the health care company is providing families with respite care by going into homes and taking on temporary caregiving responsibilities so family members can recharge.

For people with more demanding needs, home hospice patients can stay at one of eight hospice houses for up to five days. In some cases Medicaid covers the costs. 

But with COVID-19, comes an added worry about bringing outsiders -- even health care workers -- into an environment with elderly people. Fleece says there have been a lot of questions about safety.

“So we certainty will talk our caregivers through our screening protocols and our testing protocols,” Fleece said. "We're talking them through the basics of how the virus is transmitted, what we're doing for personal protective equipment and what we're doing with ongoing testing. We have gone up and beyond to do our best to reduce that anxiety."

Brenda Pruitt is a home health aide with Approved Home Health. She says there are a number of protocols companies like hers have implemented because of COVID-19.  Aides have always worn gloves and masks but are now wearing eye shields as well. She takes her temperature every morning and disinfects her car every day because she often drives clients to doctor's appointments.

"It's a safety thing,” she said. “Mine are 74 to 100 years of age. They're in the vulnerable group so you really have to be protective of them."

With no clear picture of how long the health crisis will continue, home health services will be central to keeping people out of hospital and nursing home settings.

For Diane Arbetta in Sarasota and her 100-year old mother, the option has made a big difference. Her mother's health is getting better, she said.

"She has improved,” Arbetta said. "With assistance, she can use her walker but we have to put a belt around her. But she is walking and her legs are strengthening.”

Arbetta doesn't like to do it but says respite care has allowed her to leave the house for short periods of time now. She can go grocery shopping, fill her mother's prescriptions and even have a cup of coffee with a friend.

“I trust them and I don't have to worry about anything,” she said. “I know they're going to take care of my mother and they do."

And that makes a difference Arbetta says, because after the professionals leave, she is back on duty as a first-time, full-time caregiver.

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