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Coronavirus In Ohio: Counselors Help Nursing Homes Residents With Anxiety And Loss

Elderly person in a nursing home.
Sabine van Erp

As Gov. Mike DeWine loosens visitation rules at nursing homes and assisted living facilities, where the coronavirus pandemic has hit hardest, mental health professionals are counseling residents to help ease their stress.

“There’s a lot of anxiety around being in a medical facility and being away from home,” says psychologist Mary Lewis, co-owner of Reflections Health & Wellness. “A lot of issues with adjustment and loss.”

Nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have experienced more than half of all confirmed COVID-19 deaths in Ohio: 1,491 out of 2,704 total deaths.

Lewis says many facilities started banning all visitors in late February, even before Ohio's statewide crackdown, because of reports that the coronavirus was spreading quickly among older people. That meant residents lost the emotional and physical touch of loved ones.

“I’m seeing an increase in self-neglect, basically,” Lewis says. “Folks aren’t eating. They’re sleeping all day.  They’ve shut down. We’ve actually had some folks show a failure to thrive because they’ve been isolated from the folks they care about.”

DeWine startedlifting the ban on visitations in early June. Nursing homes and assisted living facilities can now allow outdoor visits for residents, as long as participants wear face masks and maintain social distancing.

However, those in-person visits are still not ideal, Lewis says.

“It’s just not the same as somebody sitting next to you and touching your hand, rubbing your shoulder or just having that kind of human connection,” Lewis says.

Reflections Health & Wellness employes eight psychologists and two licensed independent social workers, who provide counseling for residents in 25 assisted living facilities in Central Ohio and the Dayton area.

Lewis says her clients range in age from 18-103. She listens to their worries about the changes in their environment, and counsels them on how to protect themselves from COVID-19 by wearing face masks and washing their hands. 

For some residents, Lewis offers tablets or smartphones to communicate with loved ones through Facetime or Zoom. But virtual visits aren't a replacement for the real thing.

“Some of our older residents struggle to use the technology that we’re providing, to try and at least have some visits with family, because they can’t hear well or see well or get confused with that,” Lewis says.

Lewis says family and friends can also do their part by assuring their loved ones they are also taking precautions in their daily lives. Simply staying in touch can alleviate some of the anxiety for residents.

“Whether it’s a phone call, telehealth, if you can afford buying a tablet or a phone for your loved one, do that," Lewis says. "Set it up for them ahead of time and get it to the facility.”

Debbie Holmes has worked at WOSU News since 2009. She has hosted All Things Considered, since May 2021. Prior to that she was the host of Morning Edition and a reporter.