Making the decision to move an aging loved one into a long-term care facility is never easy, but doing it during a pandemic makes it doubly difficult. In the beginning of last year, nursing homes were notorious COVID-19 hotspots, and while things aren’t as grim as they were at the onset of the pandemic, the delta variant has been an unexpected plot twist for families with older loved ones.
“Finding the right senior living community always takes time,” says Carol Cummings, Senior Director of Optimum Life Engagement for Brookdale Senior Living. “Aside from finding a facility that works location-wise, families need to consider the level of care loved ones need and the amenities potential residents want most. Additionally, there’s COVID, which is cause for even more questions and research before making a move.”
Wondering how the delta variant is affecting nursing homes and long-term care facilities? Experts offer safety advice and insight.
Are nursing homes safe for older adults right now?
According to Dr. Amesh Adalja, Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, the biggest factor in determining how safe a nursing home or other long-term care facility is for an older adult is the vaccination status of everyone. “The safety of a nursing home is directly related to the residents and employees both being fully vaccinated,” he says, adding that families who are looking into facilities should inquire if vaccination is a requirement for residents and staff.
But what about breakthrough infections?
Even with vaccination, it is possible to get COVID (known as a breakthrough infection), particularly with the highly-transmissible delta variant. “There may be breakthrough cases in older adults that require hospitalization, but not specifically due to the virulence of delta, but because it’s more contagious,” Adalja says.
However, according to Adalja and Dr. Brandon Brown, Associate Professor at the Center for Healthy Communities Department of Social Medicine, Population and Public Health at UCR School of Medicine, vaccination is still critical, especially when it comes to older adults.
“Everyone is at risk for COVID-19 disease, even those who are vaccinated; and older adults are at increased risk of getting sick when infected with the virus,” Brown explains. “But the vaccinated are at decreased risk of serious illness and death from the virus.”
What precautions should senior living facilities be taking right now?
While the delta variant has thrown a wrench in what was starting to seem like the end of the pandemic, Brown notes that, when looking into nursing homes or long-term care facilities, families should take comfort in the fact that the precautions that have been used all along still hold true. But again, vaccination is key.
“People should be practicing the same prevention measures that we know have worked throughout the pandemic — masking, vaccination and physical distancing,” he says. “In nursing homes, I would find out if all staff and other residents have been vaccinated before moving a loved one into one.”
Cummings also adds that, in addition to ensuring seniors’ physical health is a priority, families should make sure facilities are focusing on mental health, as well. “In conjunction with building on the enhanced cleaning protocols and safety precautions, nursing homes and facilities should be focusing on creating environments that promote well-being and managing the long-term effects of the pandemic,” she says.
What questions should families ask nursing homes during delta?
John Moore, CEO and Chairman of Atria Senior Living, urges families to find out about the vaccination rate among both employees and residents before committing to a facility or community. (Seeing a theme here?) Additionally, he recommends inquiring about the precautions that have been put in place since the onset of the pandemic.
“Be sure to discuss how the senior living community adapted during the pandemic and what opportunities are currently provided to residents for social connection, support and ways to stay active,” he says, adding that vigorous cleaning protocols and “attention to disease activity” should be present at any nursing home or senior community.
Here’s a list of questions Cummings recommends asking:
- Is there a vaccine requirement among the staff?
- Is there a mask policy for staff?
- How often are busy surfaces being cleaned?
- Can I talk to some of the current residents for reference?
- What do the dining options look like?
- How can I make the staff aware of an issue I may want to address?
Other questions to should ask, according to Brown:
- Is there a mask policy for residents?
- What are the protocols for outside visitors?
- Do visitors need to wear a mask in public spaces?
- Is a negative COVID test required to visit?
- How often is testing done among staff and residents?
- What was your protocol for previous outbreaks?
- Are there any recent or current positive test results among residents?
- What kinds of activities are engaging residents to keep them connected in the age of COVID?
What can families do to help protect their aging loved ones if they’re moving into a facility?
In addition to being thorough with your questions and making sure the facility or community you choose is being diligent with their COVID safety protocols, Brown advises a vaccine booster. “Get them vaccinated, and try to get them a third dose if possible before moving,” he says.
Another thing you can do: Find out how the facility has fared with the pandemic thus far. “Families should make sure any senior living community they consider has a proven, great track record of protecting their residents from a health and safety standpoint, in addition to engaging and supporting their overall well-being,” Moore says, adding that, as we enter flu season, it’s “more important than ever to be vigilant in safety protocols” so families can continue spending time with one another.