She was missing her 87-year-old dad, at whose knee she learned the printing trade, after nursing homes locked down to control the coronavirus outbreak. Along with millions of other Americans separated from their elderly parents, she could only see her dad, Harold Racine, through the glass window panes at Good Samaritan Society – Stillwater.
Then, in October, while turning over in her head how she could see her dad more often, she hit on the perfect solution.
“Hey, why don’t I get a job there?” she told news station KARE.
As fortune would have it, her dad’s care center was hiring.
Racine found a way into her father’s care center that eludes many of her peers. Fewer than 1 percent of U.S. residents live in nursing homes, but accounted for 35 percent of U.S. COVID-19 deaths as of Feb. 25, according to The COVID Tracking Project. As of a week ago, 172,905 people had died in 32,806 nursing homes across the country.
The lockdowns forced millions of long-term care center residents into isolation, fueling a mental health crisis that amplified the pandemic’s devastating effects on older Americans, according to AARP, a special-interest group that focuses on issues affecting people over 50.
Data is scarce, but experts, resident advocates and people with loved ones in nursing homes told AARP that feelings of loneliness, abandonment, despair and fear take a toll on both physical and neurological health, and were pushing the COVID-19 death toll higher.
In Minnesota, “social isolation” is listed as a cause or contributing factor on the death certificates of some long-term care residents who died during the pandemic. Other states list “failure to thrive” as a cause of death.
“We’re hearing from a number of family members and [long-term care] ombudsmen that many residents are just losing the will to live,” Robyn Grant, the director of public policy and advocacy for the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, told the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minnesota, last summer.
In that respect, visits from loved ones are a critical lifeline.
Racine is overqualified for her part-time evening and weekend cleaning gig, but it’s one for which she has happily given up after-work yoga classes or happy hour meet-ups.
But the freedom her job gives her to visit her dad’s room?
“That’s priceless,” she said. “I can’t believe they pay me for this.”
Her dad, who raised eight kids with his now-late wife, told the news station the day his daughter showed up at his care center was “one of the happiest days of [his] life.”
The job as a front-line health care worker gave Lisa Racine the chance to get her COVID-19 vaccination alongside her father. She told KARE she’s going to hang on to her part-time job, at least for now, because “it makes me feel like I’m doing something good for other people.”
Minnesota public health officials acknowledged the unintended consequences of prolonged isolation and separation from their families on long-term care center residents last fall and allowed nursing homes to designate essential caregivers who could spend time with and advocate for nursing home residents.
In states where visits have resumed, social distancing policies remain in effect to minimize the risk of transmission of the virus or any of its variants, even as most residents have received their COVID-19 vaccinations, according to AARP.
Jennifer Schrack, an associate professor at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a specialist in the epidemiology of aging, told AARP that the reopening of nursing homes “does not mean that it is not important to practice diligence.”
“Precautions are still important,” she said. “No visit is without risk.” ✪