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Elder care advocates weigh in on next steps for MN seniors amid coronavirus

Ready to see grandma face-to-face? After three months of lockdowns intended to protect elderly and vulnerable populations from COVID-19, state health officials recently released guidelines for both outdoor and “open window” visits at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

It’s a change that some elder care advocates call overdue, and one of several steps that many seniors and their families had asked the Minnesota Department of Health to consider. More are coming.

“Yes, allowing structured visits needs to be done,” said Eilon Caspi, a consultant on dementia behavior and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing. “It probably should have been done weeks ago. Why not do it outdoors, if we know the outdoors can be safer than indoors, with masks on?”

Caspi added: “I’m not saying we should have family members just walk in. That would be reckless. (But) we have reports of residents dying of social isolation on death certificates, as a secondary cause of death.”

Still, others who speak out for seniors say alongside ramped-up testing, extreme precautions — even bans on family visits — have been warranted given how quickly COVID-19 can rip through a long-term care center. Statewide, 80 percent of known COVID deaths have been in congregate care facilities.

In early June, the state Department of Health identified four facilities that had upward of 100 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus between residents and staff, including two locations with more than 50 resident deaths apiece.

“(Congregate care) absolutely demands close personal contact from other human beings who are coming in from the outside multiple times a day,” said Dr. James Pacala, a University of Minnesota Medical School professor and past president of the American Geriatrics Society. “There’s no substitute. There’s no video iPad that can help a nursing home resident get out of bed, or toilet properly, or put in their dentures.”

Moving forward, what else should government, industry and families of loved ones be doing differently when it comes to protecting those in long-term care from the virus? Here’s where six elder care advocates stand on that question:


Kristine Sundberg is the executive director of Elder Voice Family Advocates, a coalition that came together in 2017 around issues of elder abuse and neglect in congregate care settings.

“I think we need to sit down together — the advocates and the (state) Department of Health — to figure out what makes sense for visitation. There’s going to be risks, no matter what we do. But from the family’s point of view, this is getting dire. People are significantly declining.

"And we know that the isolation is killing some of them. Isolation has been well-established as a critical health and psychological issue, especially for the elderly. Especially now during the summer, there needs to be ways that they can visit outside, or that th