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Published January 19, 2013, 11:35 PM

Minding Our Elders: Help elders endure isolation due to flu outbreak

With the flu outbreak, the nursing home where my mother lives has isolated residents and is not allowing visitors. Marie says Mom is very upset. Mom understands when Marie tells her on the phone why she can’t visit, but then Mom quickly forgets and calls wondering why my Marie’s not there. What can we do to make Mom feel better?

By: Carol Bradley Bursack, INFORUM

DEAR CAROL: My mother is in a nursing home because of mid-stage Alzheimer’s disease and severe arthritis. While I live at a distance, my sister, Marie, lives near mom and visits several times a week. Now, with this flu outbreak, the nursing home where my mother lives has isolated residents and is not allowing visitors. Marie says Mom is very upset. Mom understands when Marie tells her on the phone why she can’t visit, but then Mom quickly forgets and calls wondering why my Marie’s not there. What can we do to make Mom feel better? - Gale

DEAR GALE: Because most long-term facilities encourage flu shots for their residents, the typical flu season generally passes without a lot of problems. However, once in a while we have a very bad year. Since it’s the responsibility of the facilities to protect their residents, even at the cost of some emotional distress like that of your Mom, visitors aren’t allowed for a time. This is one of those years.

My family went through the same thing a few years back. Both of my parents were in a nursing home and they were used to me visiting nearly every day. Then, the facility had to shut out visitors because of the flu.

My mother, like yours, could use the telephone, so we’d talk several times a day. Sometimes she’d forget why I hadn’t been over to visit her, but I’d just remind her about the flu and then ask if she needed anything. Often she wanted some favorite food item or toiletries, so I’d get what she wanted and leave it at the front desk with a request that they deliver it to Mom when it was convenient. Also, since Mom loved mail, I sent her a silly card every couple of days. With this kind of attention, she did reasonably well.

The isolation was harder on Dad. He’d had surgery a few years earlier that had sent him over the line into dementia. I knew Dad wouldn’t retain the reason for me not being with him and that he’d feel abandoned. Since he couldn’t use a telephone and his eyes were poor, my solution was to write him a daily note containing a couple of sentences, using a 24-point bold font. In each dated note, with slightly different wording, I’d tell him that I was downstairs at the nursing home, but because of the flu, I couldn’t come up to his room.

Even with the notes, Dad had a tough time, but the staff members were wonderful about delivering them and saying they’d seen me. They saved them so he could re-read them. I didn’t mail the notes because I thought that when he saw the envelope he’d feel I was far away. Since the staff told him I’d left them at the desk, he understood that I was close by.

During those hard days, I made resolved to accept that I was doing all I could and that worrying was counterproductive. My parents were not sick, they were just temporarily isolated. I hope that your mom and others in her facility will stay well. If, however, your mom should become seriously ill, I’m sure they will allow your sister to see her.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com.

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