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Despite Communication Challenges, Families Must Continue to Advocate for Loved Ones in Long-Term Care

Few people, especially those within healthcare, are unaware that the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the nursing home and long-term care areas of the care continuum harder than anywhere else. The skilled nursing environment has, unfortunately, become a place where COVID-19 is easily transferred between patients, residents, family members, and staff, necessitating lockdowns, the prohibition of visitors, and elimination of resident gatherings. While some measures have been successful in preventing additional widespread infection and loss of life, there are inherent challenges for this care environment in the face of a pandemic. According to a recent media briefing about nursing facilities and the COVID-19 pandemic, Duke University eldercare experts emphasized that “Nursing homes will continue to be COVID-19 hotspots until state and federal officials can institute sweeping testing of asymptomatic patients and workers.”

This blog post is the fifth in our series based on the HealthStream article, 10 Considerations for COVID-19 and Long-Term Care, which examines specific considerations and recommendations to improve the prospects for people living in this long term care, offered by three Duke experts in the eldercare and public policy space.

Family Advocacy Continues to Play an Important Role for Nursing Home Patients.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created significant complications for family members of patients and residents in nursing homes. More often, family members are the strongest care advocates for their loved ones. Not only are family members important for supplementing staff roles, but their presence also helps enforce accountability that organizations are providing necessary care. The presence of family caregivers, especially on weekends, when many care facilities may be understaffed, is extremely important. That makes it essential for families to advocate for their loved ones during a time when they can’t physically visit. Donald Taylor suggests that some families may consider hiring caregiver support for elders who live in an independent living facility, an environment in which restricted access may be less of a problem. The pandemic presents an opportunity to employ new means of communication, for example transitioning to video calls using apps like FaceTime. According to Nathan Boucher, for families to explore and make use of “the full extent of telephonic and online virtual communication would be really key.”

About the Experts

Nathan Boucher is an Assistant Research Professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke. He studies patients’ and caregivers’ experiences and expectations of health care delivery during advanced illness and near the end of life.

Eleanor Schildwachter McConnell is an Associate Professor at the Duke University School of Nursing. She studies factors that influence functional decline in very frail older adults. Her research has been funded by the National Institute of Nursing Research and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Donald Taylor is a Professor of Public Policy who researches aging and comparative health systems, including Medicare, long-term care, and health policy. Taylor also directs Duke’s Social Science Research Center.

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