Separated By The Pandemic, Families Struggle To Keep In Touch With Veterans In VA Nursing Homes
Like most long-term care facilities, VA nursing homes haven't allowed in-person visitation since early March.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic forced hospitals and nursing homes to close their doors to non-emergency visitors, the only time Army veteran Hermann "Harry" Stapleton, 72, gets to see his family is during weekly video chats.
On a recent Wednesday, Stapleton sat in his bedroom at the Orlando VA's Community Living Center and talked with his sister Maria Mishkind and her husband John, who live in Maine.
The Mishkinds gave their brother a taste of the outside world, chatting with him from their back porch. He said 'Hi' to their dogs, which he got to know when he used to live in their home.
They also showed him some photos, including one of him standing next to a helicopter as a young man during the Vietnam War, and a couple recent shots of their mother, who is also in a nursing home.
Stapleton's face lit up as tells them about the NASCAR race he recently watched and his quest to find the right TV channel.
"I watched the whole thing and only missed one lap," he said.
Stapleton couldn't pull this video chat off by himself. He has advanced Parkinson's Disease, which is connected to Agent Orange exposure during the war. His recreation therapist handlded the technology on iPads provided by the VA.
"It's like actually being there," Stapleton said, to which his sister responded, "It's like we're having coffee together isn't it?"
Stapleton last saw the Mishkinds when they flew to Florida in January. Maria said they typically "wear him out" with outings to the Kennedy Space Center or restaurants. They were supposed to return in April but had to cancel because of the pandemic.
"I think he misses getting out, and we miss getting him out, so it's just been really hard not to be able to see him," she said.
Mishkind worried about her brother's safety at first when she saw a news report that the Orlando VA Community Living Center had a case of COVID-19. But she said she has since been reassured through regular communication with staff and with Harry.
"I was going nuts"
The Orlando Community Living Center has had two COVID-19 cases so far and no deaths. Under national policy from the Department of Veterans Affairs, the residents who tested positive were taken out of the CLC and transported to acute care at the nearby VA hospital.
The visitation ban is also part of those national guidelines to protect residents and staff.
Minda B. Lagos, 79, appreciates the emphasis on safety, but it has still been very stressful for her. Her son, Army veteran Diosdado B. Lagos, Jr., 54, is also at the facility, and the coronavirus has completely upended their lives.
Before the pandemic, Lagos spent every day sitting beside her son, who can't move or talk due to brain injuries.
When she learned in March she couldn't visit, her first thoughts were that her son would think she had abandoned him.
"It was really devastating, I was going nuts," she said.
Lagos isn't good with electronics and said she had no idea how to do a video chat. For weeks, her contact with her son was secondhand through phone calls with nurses, until she complained.
"I was crying and crying. I couldn't talk," she said. "I said, 'Why do I have to do this?'"
Therapist Pravish Presaud ended up meeting Lagos outside the facility to set up a chat app on her phone and taught her how to use it. Seeing her son on the screen for the first time was a huge relief.
"It was good; he looked the same" she said. "I told him, 'Hey, you're pogi!,'" which in Filipino means, "handsome."
Even though her son can't respond verbally, Lagos said he listens and can smile and pucker his lips to send kisses. She said they both depend on the precious minutes they have with each other during their weekly virtual visits.
"I'm able to talk to him, you know, say 'I love you,'" she said. "We can't do anything unless this virus will be eradicated."
The VA has issued guidelines for its facilities to reopen and is taking a phased approached that begins with loosening restrictions in its hospitals.
Lisa Minor, Director of Facility Based Programs in the VA's Office of Geriatrics and Extended Care, said the speed at which individual healthcare systems progress through those phases depends on a lot of factors, including how well-equipped facilities are to respond to future outbreaks and how their surrounding communities are faring.
For example, facilities in a hard-hit area like New York will take longer to reopen than in places that had few or no cases.
Regardless, Minor said it could be a while before nursing homes welcome guests again.
"We know this is a very vulnerable population, and we want to see how things go in other areas of the hospital," she said.
Until then, Minor said staff will continue to facilitate video chats to keep veterans engaged and will place a strong emphasis on mental health to help those suffering from the effects of isolation.
"We know that our families and our veterans want to connect again, but we also have to keep in mind we want to keep them safe," she said.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.