Bunny Douglass, a resident at the Enclave of Scarborough assisted living community, waves to her family on Sunday, her 84th birthday. The Enclave allows “window visits” to help residents feel less isolated. Courtesy / The Enclave of Scarborough

SOUTH PORTLAND — Mary Altenbern’s husband, Charlie, 66, has been living at the South Portland Nursing Home for a year now and, until recently, she was able to visit him every day, having lunch and taking walks with him.

That changed on Feb. 28, when visitation was temporarily cut off due to an outbreak of ordinary flu, but that eventually overlapped into the coronavirus pandemic, meaning Altenbern suddenly had to go weeks with very little contact.

“For me, it was devastating,” the Buxton resident said. “I’ve never been apart from him that long in our 35-year marriage.”

South Portland Nursing Home administrator Jeff Ketchum said he had to restrict visitors and nonessential personnel starting on March 16, after receiving directives from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, an agency under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The only exception, he said, is what’s called a “compassionate visit,” so a a family member can see a gravely ill relative or one who’s in hospice.

Ketchum said he immediately began working with his staff on how to keep lines of communications open. Phone calls are, of course, allowed, but sometimes that doesn’t work as well as a video chat might, so the home works with various software products such as Zoom and FaceTime.

“It’s being used heavily,” he said.

The staff schedule video calls with family members, and provide the use of a tablet with a built-in webcam for the residents to use, with guidance from the staff.

“It keeps that connection between the resident and the family member,” he said.

Altenbern said the nursing home reached out and offered FaceTime chats. It took a few tries to coordinate, but on Monday this week, with Altenbern at home with her cell phone and her husband using the tablet, they were able to look at each other for the first time in 30 days.

“He smiled, and I cried,” she said. “It was just amazing.”

Due to his condition, Charlie rarely speaks, but he can hear and understand just fine. Altenbern said she noticed his hair looked a little messy, and promised she’d see him soon to comb it.

“All of a sudden, he took his hand and started fixing his hair,” she said.

He then really shocked his wife when he turned to a staff member next to him and said, “Can she come?”

“Oh my God, it’s the most he’s talked in a year,” she said.

Now, the two have scheduled FaceTime calls on Mondays and Fridays, and Altenbern said she is grateful for the nursing home’s help.

“This nursing home is an excellent care facility,” she said.

Amber Wilson, lifestyles director at the Enclave of Scarborough, an assisted living community, said the community employs many of the same online tools as the South Portland Nursing Home, and she added another app, Remind, a messaging tool usually used to keep parents abreast of what’s happening at their children’s school, but is also being used to keep families up to date on special programs for community residents.

One idea the community came up with is something they call “window visits.” Wilson said staff members help a resident schedule a time for a family member to come to the community. The resident then goes to the “discovery room,” a room with a large picture window, where they can see and interact with a visitor who remains outside. It’s a nice alternative, Wilson said, to technological communication, which not every family wants to use.

“Not everybody has an iPhone,” she said.

Sharon Sparrow, who lives in Raymond, regularly visits her mother, Bunny Douglass, at the community, and she has an aunt, who lives closer, and visits once or twice a week.

Just like Altenbern in South Portland, that all changed for Sparrow when the Enclave had to invoke similar visitation restrictions.

“That was hard for me, because that’s how I connect with my mom,” she said.

On Sunday, for Bunny’s 84th birthday, she still couldn’t take visitors, but that didn’t stop the family from turning a window visit into a small birthday party. They assembled outside the building, maintaining distance from each other of course, all the while waving to her and holding up signs.

“We all wanted to see her personally, even if it was through a window,” she said.

Sparrow said her mother was clearly excited to see everyone, and the Enclave helped organize and plan the event.

“I think they’re doing an incredible job,” she said. “They are so amazing to work with.”

Wilson said so far, the community has arranged window visits for about 15 families, and other families have arrange other impromptu visits outside room windows of their loved ones, all at a safe distance.

Megan Walton, CEO of the Southern Maine Council on Aging, said efforts like these are very important to the emotional health of nursing home and assisted care residents who otherwise might feel cut off.

“People just do better when they have that regular interaction and socialization with others,” she said.

Many organizations and care facilities, Walton said,

“People are craving that interaction with others,” she said.

 

Sean Murphy — 780-9094

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