Kansans in care facilities have a right to visitors

By Mitzi McFatrich
Kansas Advocates for Better Care
Unlike the rest of us, adults in nursing homes have no say in how or when they will see family and friends or gather for a meal. Their legal rights, while not formally suspended, are suspended in practice by the policies and decision-making protocols issued by government agencies managing the pandemic.
There is understandable fear about opening up. Older adults with chronic conditions living in close quarters are at higher risk and feel the impacts more harshly. But there is injury too from continuous isolation. Falls and confusion, weight loss, depression and anxiety all have risen with isolation.
Visits literally save lives. Not only do friends and family offer elders the social connection and emotional support we all need, they serve as essential monitors of care.
There is not always agreement about the way forward.
A woman named Emma, who has lived in a Kansas care facility for five years, was not even able to visit with friends who lived in the same facility. Depressed after months-long isolation with no end to restrictions in sight and no say in facility policies, she left to stay with family in a nearby state.
Kathy, meanwhile, is grateful for the maximum restrictions in her husband’s nursing home. Alarmed by COVID-19’s upward surge, she supports the restrictions, believing it is more important than ever to protect vulnerable elders.
So we must wrestle with competing imperatives of well-being. Current government guidance leaves decision-making to local health departments and facilities, with no requirement to seek input from the adults who reside within.
Safe visitation during COVID-19 is a complex but not unsolvable puzzle. Some of the basics are: adequate staff to provide care and assist elders in visiting with loved ones by phone, video, in a designated indoor room or outdoors; clear protocols for infection control; education, screening and logging of visitors just as is done with staff and elders; use of masks and appropriate protective equipment; disinfecting surfaces between visits.
By law, every facility has a resident council. These resident councils could be surveyed for their input.
We have also requested that when state agencies are meeting with hospital and facility providers to define policies, resident voices be present through consumer legal or resident advocates such as the Kansas Long-Term Care Ombudsman.
Mitzi McFatrich is executive director of Kansas Advocates for Better Care. This opinion piece first appeared in the Kansas Reflector, a nonprofit online news operation.

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