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More Visitation Options, Protections Needed at Minnesota Nursing Homes

An older woman holds a photo of her mother
Claudia Baney stands outside of her home in Hermantown, Minnesota, holding a photo of her 91-year-old mother, Gerrie Aro. Her mother deteriorated rapidly when her nursing home shut down during the coronavirus pandemic, isolating her from loved ones.
Photo by Ackerman + Gruber

Claudia Baney’s 91-year-old mother, Gerrie Aro, the gregarious “bingo queen” of her Duluth nursing home, always relished a lively debate and took pride in remembering details like how many children everyone had. 

Then the pandemic hit, and on March 11 the nursing home locked down, leaving Aro isolated in her room for months. By late June, when Baney was finally allowed to visit, she was shocked at Aro’s failing memory and inability to follow a conversation.

Her spark was gone. Instead of chatting animatedly, Aro sometimes simply responded “Hmm,” said Baney, 69, a retired school paraprofessional who lives in Hermantown. “As time went on there was less of the spunkiness and more just emptiness.”

The coronavirus continues to take a tragic toll on Minnesota’s nursing homes, with deaths of residents and workers accounting for roughly 70 percent of the statewide total.  

AARP is pushing state lawmakers to address residents’ need for socialization, among other long-term care reforms, when they return next month for the 2021 legislative session. 

“Every resident should have the right to visitation if it can be done safely,” said Mary Jo George, advocacy director for AARP Minnesota. “COVID has really laid bare the need for systemic reforms that we’ve been advocating for a long time.”

Earlier this year, AARP urged the governor’s At-Risk Populations Work Group to increase nursing home COVID-19 reporting  and to boost funding for staffing, personal protective equipment and infection control. And it encouraged the state to allow visitations under certain guidelines.

In October, Minnesota relaxed restrictions to permit in-person visits at facilities that have had no new COVID-19 infections in the preceding 14 days and where the infection rate in the surrounding county is no more than 10 percent. Previous guidance required they be infection free for 28 days.

However, with cases on the rise nationwide, visitation rules could change. Get updates from the Minnesota Department of Health or use AARP's nursing home tracker.

The new guidelines also allow the state to issue citations to facilities that don’t have a valid reason for keeping their doors closed.

“It is critically important that facilities are held accountable,” George said.

Families can take action

Suzanne Scheller, a Champlin attorney who specializes in elder abuse and neglect cases, said she has gotten more calls from families of nursing home residents amid the pandemic. 

She advises family members to ask for a meeting with staff to establish a care plan; to visit the facility regularly, if possible; and to make sure the resident’s care and concerns are documented. 

Having video cameras in residents’ rooms, allowed by law since Jan. 1, also lets families check on their loved ones.

If you suspect that a relative or friend is being mistreated, Scheller advises contacting the Minnesota Office of Ombudsman for Long-Term Care, at 800-657-3591, or the Minnesota Adult Abuse Reporting Center, at 844-880-1574.

On Sept. 16, Aro’s nursing home notified Baney that two staff had tested positive for COVID-19 and the residents were once again isolated in their rooms. As hard as this is for her mother, Baney said, others are even more isolated. “Many don’t have anybody.”

AARP needs more volunteers to advocate on behalf of older Minnesotans and create positive social change. Email or call 651-726-5641.

Mary Van Beusekom is a writer living in Excelsior.

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