The Juneau Pioner Home on Wednesday, July 15, 2020. All staff at each Pioneer Home had received negative COVID-19 test results the Department of Health and Social Services announced Tuesday, meaning all the Homes were now able to host limited in-person visits. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

The Juneau Pioner Home on Wednesday, July 15, 2020. All staff at each Pioneer Home had received negative COVID-19 test results the Department of Health and Social Services announced Tuesday, meaning all the Homes were now able to host limited in-person visits. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

Elder care facilities balance health, emotional needs during pandemic

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All Alaska Pioneer Homes are able to allow limited visitations in a controlled setting, the Department of Health and Social Services announced Tuesday.

All staff at each home have received negative results for baseline COVID-19 tests, the department said in a news release. Each home will be able to designate its own policy on visitations, the release said, but other factors are being considered when a home designs its policy. Homes in Anchorage and Fairbanks are still not allowing visitations because of the high number of cases in those communities.

However, Juneau is on its third week of limited family visits, according to Gina Del Rosario, administrator of the Juneau Pioneer Home. That’s because all of Juneau’s staff got negative results back weeks ago, Del Rosario said, and just finished a second round of testing. Visits are limited to 20 minutes and have to be scheduled in advance, she said. They take place in a small room that needs to be thoroughly cleaned after each visit.

Visits are limited to just one family member, Del Rosario said, but as of Monday the Juneau home will be allowing two visitors at a time, so long as they were from the same household.

“I’m taking it slowly,” Del Rosario said.

Visitation policies are left to the administrator at each home, she said, and it was her intent is to open gradually and only after new rounds of testing. Residents at the Pioneer Homes are considered to be among the most vulnerable to the coronavirus, Del Rosario said, and extreme caution has to be taken to protect them.

But she understands the emotional needs residents have for social engagement.

“There’s cabin fever according to the residents,” she said. “We’re recognizing the need for connecting with family members. Slowly we’re hoping to bring some more happiness into the residents’ lives.”

[Technology connects Pioneer Home residents and family]

That’s a difficult balance. The Juneau Pioneer Home doesn’t currently require visitors to provide negative test results, but asks they observe strict infection control by wearing a mask and clean cloths to the visit. Visitors are screened at the door before entering the building, but even with all those precautions, Del Rosario said she received complaints about not requiring testing for visitors from family members.

The home is arranging for one of their usual volunteers to come and play the piano for an hour. One family member brought a puppy to the visiting room, and Del Rosario was working on bringing the dog back for a more extended playdate. But things like that take a lot to ensure everyone involved is tested, social distancing is observed and follow-up testing is done.

The Juneau Pioneer Home was able to secure a decent number of testing kits from the state, according to Del Rosario. Enough she said, to test the entire staff every two weeks for some time.

[More funding will come Sullivan says, but when is another matter]

Juneau has other senior living facilities, but not all of them are set up for seniors with health conditions like the Pioneer Homes are. Tlingit and Haida Regional Housing Authority runs Fireweed Place in downtown Juneau. It’s not an elder care facility, but residents have to be at least 60-years-old, which is an age health experts have designated as at heightened risk.

But Fireweed Place is an independent-living facility, said Jackie Pata, president and CEO of THRHA, and mostly relies on residents following guidelines.

When the pandemic first began, Pata said, there were more stringent rules about visitation, but those have largely been lifted at Fireweed Place. THRHA has other facilities throughout Southeast, Pata said, and some housing in smaller villages have stricter rules, and people have mostly respected the guidelines.

But some of the guidelines can put families in a tough position, Pata said. In some of the village communities, children are still not allowed, which can be tough when grandparents provide childcare.

Asked if children are allowed to stay with grandparents at Fireweed Place, Pata said “we don’t disallow it. We ask people be respectful be sure visitors can be contained in the unit.”

Other facilities are still locked down almost entirely. Wildflower Court, a private care home, follows Medicaid and Medicare guidelines that currently allow for almost no visitation, according to Administrator Ruth Johnson.

A shelter was built just outside one of the windows so residents and family members can have visits that way, Johnson said.

“Honestly its’ been working pretty good,” she said. “Mostly family members have been extremely grateful for us.”

End-of-life care visits are the only in-person visits allowed at Wildflower Court, Johnson said, and even those require testing and wearing personal protective equipment.

All three facilities noted how they’ve stepped up their use of electronic communication, but acknowledged the need for in-person visits. At the Juneau Pioneer Home, Del Rosario said she wants to see how a month of two visitors at a time went, and after another round of testing would be willing to consider allowing more visits.

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnoEmpire.

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