Living, Dying Alone in Nursing Homes

    28 April 2020

    As doctors know too well, the disease COVID-19 can be deadly for two groups of people: those with some pre-existing health conditions and older adults, or the elderly.

    Places that care for older adults are being severely tested in the current health crisis. Nursing homes are working hard to protect their residents from the new coronavirus. And they are helping these individuals deal with the issue of loneliness and possibly dying alone.

    Last month in Belgium, the government ordered businesses to close and people to stay at home to limit the spread of the virus. During the first weeks of the stay-at-home order, many nursing home residents were separated from their loved ones.

    A view of the Pio Albergo Trivulzio nursing home in Milan, Italy, Tuesday, April 7, 2020. Italy's health ministry has sent inspectors to the country's biggest nursing home where 70 elderly people reportedly died in March alone. (AP photo)
    A view of the Pio Albergo Trivulzio nursing home in Milan, Italy, Tuesday, April 7, 2020. Italy's health ministry has sent inspectors to the country's biggest nursing home where 70 elderly people reportedly died in March alone. (AP photo)

    Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes wanted to do something to deal with the problem. She announced that her government decided to let one person – in good health – visit each resident.

    Wilmes told parliament that, "People can die of loneliness," and that a long period of isolation has "consequences."

    The prime minister was criticized for her decision. The Associated Press (AP) reports that people feared visitors to nursing homes would "endanger lives and overburden the staff."

    Belgium is not alone in facing the issue of whether to ease safety rules at a time when health care workers are fighting to save coronavirus patients.

    Italy, Spain, Britain and France are four countries hard hit by the virus. All have banned nursing home visits to protect their sick and elderly residents.

    However, some countries are rethinking that ban.

    France is trying to find a middle ground. Recently, President Emmanuel Macron ordered an exception to one of the world's strongest lockdowns. It permits family members to visit loved ones at the end of their lives.

    On April 20, France began allowing two family members to visit any loved one in a nursing home. But there are conditions, the AP notes. Visitors must wear a face mask and sit at least one meter away from nursing home residents. Also, they cannot put their arms around or hold residents during their 30-minute visit.

    In Berlin, Germany, nursing home patients are permitted one visitor for up to one hour a day. Also, there are no restrictions on visits for those nearing the end of life.

    The AP reports that South Africa has begun to take precautionary measures at nursing homes. However, in most of Africa, concerns about aging populations have not been as much of an issue as they are in Europe. The AP notes that Africa is the world's youngest continent (with a median age of just 19.7 years) while Europe is the oldest.

    In the United States, federal government guidelines call for halting all nursing home visits except during end-of-life and unusual situations. They note that visitors should come with personal protective equipment, or PPE.

    Some people in the nursing home industry warn that loneliness can be deadly.

    Marc Bourquin is with the Hospital Federation of France, an organization that oversees public nursing homes. He noted the need for all elderly residents to have visitors. This is especially important, he adds, if the stay-at-home orders last for months.

    He warned that "the risk of virus will not disappear as long as there is no vaccine. We cannot condemn these people to never see their loved ones again."

    However, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen Ursula warns that isolation restrictions in nursing homes might last through 2020.

    "Without a vaccine," she said, "contact with the elderly must be restricted as much as possible."

    She told the AP that this is "difficult and that loneliness weighs heavy. But it's about survival."

    Recently, Pope Francis called on the world to pray "for those who are isolated in care homes for the elderly. They are afraid, afraid of dying alone."

    I'm Anna Matteo.

    Anna Matteo adapted this story from two reports from the Associated Press. George Grow was the editor.


    Words in This Story

    elderly – n. / adj. old or rather old : past middle age

    nursing home – n. a place where people who are old or who are unable to take care of themselves can live and be taken care of

    isolated – adj. separate from others

    consequence – n. something that happens as a result of a particular action or set of conditions

    overburden – v. to give (someone or something) too much work, worry, etc. : to burden (someone or something) too much

    staff – n. a group of people who work for an organization or business

    precautionary – adj. to take care of something in advance

    median – mathematics : the middle value in a series of values arranged from smallest to largest