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How Nursing Homes Are Resuming In-Person Visits

socially distant nursing home visit

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Key Takeaways

  • More than half of states have allowed nursing homes to resume in-person visits.
  • These visits require both nursing homes and visitors to take several precautions to keep residents safe.
  • Video calls can be used to further support residents' needs for social interaction.

On May 18, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released guidelines to assist state officials in safely allowing nursing homes to resume visits, which had been restricted for months due to COVID-19. But as of July 15, only 31 states have allowed nursing homes to restart in-person visits for family and friends, largely because cases of COVID-19 continue to rise.

“People in long-term care facilities are more vulnerable [to COVID-19]," Marcia Ory, PhD, MPH, founding director of Texas A&M Center for Population Health and Aging, tells Verywell. "They’re more likely to have multiple chronic conditions, so the issue is that they’re experiencing a higher risk of mortality.”

Restricting nursing home visits exacerbates an already growing concern regarding social isolation among residents. In February 2020, The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine reported that about 25% of older adults are considered socially isolated and at a higher risk for developing chronic diseases (e.g., heart disease) and psychological disorders (e.g., depression). Social isolation is also linked to premature death.

According to Ory, because of the profound effects social isolation can have on older adults, it's not about whether visitors should be allowed in nursing homes, but rather how to allow them to come in without potentially infecting residents.  

What Nursing Homes Are Doing

Before allowing in-person visits, nursing homes must coordinate with state and federal authorities to determine if it's considered safe to "reopen." For example, CMS recommends that, before reopening to visitors, nursing homes demonstrate the following:

  •  No new COVID-19 cases for 28 days 
  •  No staff shortages
  •  Adequate personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies, and disinfection supplies
  •  Sufficient access to COVID-19 testing for staff and residents

"Long-term care facilities will have to screen visitors appropriately, check temperatures, and ask about symptoms, as well as possible exposure to the virus," Ory says.

If in-person visits are allowed, most state authorities encourage, or even mandate, that nursing homes host these visits outdoors rather than indoors.

“We have created an Outdoor Living Room on our campus," Benjamin Unkle, CEO of Westminster-Canterbury on Chesapeake Bay Retirement Community, in Virginia Beach, Virgina, tells Verywell. "It has a plexiglass divider that separates the resident from their family, but allows them to see each other.”

Unkle adds the retirement community also uses a health screening for all visitors and requires the use of hand sanitizer and face masks during visits.

How to Make the Most of Your In-Person Visit

After months of social isolation, Ory explains that seniors, especially those who may have been under stricter isolation due to a COVID-19 diagnosis, may feel “hungry and eager for contact.”

For this reason, during your visit, it’s important to be mindful of your actions.

“Older people, even if they have memory issues, pick up tone," Ory says, suggesting visitors avoid focusing on hardships related to the pandemic. "Just be there in the moment," she says.

If You Can't Have An In-Person Visit

If you're unable to visit a loved one in a nursing home, find out if the facility is arranging video calls for residents. Unkle says Westminster-Canterbury on Chesapeake Bay has been using "one-touch video chats" throughout the pandemic, in which an employee initiates the video call.

What This Means For You

If your loved one resides in a nursing home, you may have the opportunity for an in-person visit, depending on your state’s policies. To keep residents safe, nursing homes are implementing several measures, from health screenings to enforcing adequate social distancing. It's important to follow these policies for your loved one's safety.

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Article Sources
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  1. Leading Age. "Reopening" to visitors: A review of CMS and states' guidance to nursing homes. Updated June 22, 2020.

  2. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Social isolation and loneliness in older adults: Opportunities for the health care system(2020): consensus study report. 2020. doi:10.17226/25663

  3. The Centers for Medicare and Medicare Services (CMS). Nursing home reopening recommendations for state and local officials. Updated May 18, 2020.