Senior homes allow supervised outdoor visits

assisted living tenant at Jones-Harrison
Dolcie Engh, an assisted living tenant at Jones-Harrison, looks through plexiglass at her granddaughter Martha and her daughter-in-law Nancy on June 30.

Shortly after 10 a.m. on June 30, Martha Engh bounded up a concrete stairwell behind the Jones-Harrison senior home in Cedar-Isles-Dean and saw her grandmother, Dolcie, for the first time since before the pandemic.

As they exchanged greetings through plexiglass panels, a Jones-Harrison staffer squirted Martha’s hands generously with hand sanitizer and pressed a temporal thermometer to her forehead. Meanwhile, Martha’s mother, Nancy, handed a slice of chocolate cake over the patio’s iron railing, placing it on a table to be screened by staff.

A moment later, the three Engh women were seated in conversation, cracking jokes about moose sightings, the St. Paul Saints and Dolcie’s 100th birthday party, which is scheduled for October.

Martha told her grandmother she’s been spending the summer in Jackson, Wyoming, living with her boyfriend while she interviews for tech jobs via Zoom.

“I remember visiting there when I was about your age,” Dolcie replied. “I had a rhinestone cowboy who offered to come and meet my family.”

“Did you send that cowboy off on his horse somewhere?” Nancy asked.

Dolcie said the cowboy sent her letters, but “I couldn’t read his writing.”

senior home
The senior home’s recreation director, Marnie Lazarus, prepares Rob Dewey for an outdoor visit with his mother, Elizabeth. Photos by Isaiah Rustad

Following a change in state guidelines announced June 17, the state’s long-term care facilities have begun allowing supervised outdoor visits.

Jones-Harrison has created three visiting stations — separating residents of the assisted living, skilled nursing and memory care wards. The home is allowing each tenant to spend at least 15 minutes per week with their family.

Barb Joyce, Jones-Harrison’s infection preventionist, said the rules around the visits are an attempt to balance residents’ physical and psychosocial well-being. Since the start of the pandemic, 56 Jones-Harrison residents have tested positive for COVID-19 and 20 have died, but facility-wide testing has helped contain the spread of the disease in recent weeks and, as of July 2, the facility’s COVID unit was down to four patients.

“Right now people are healthy and the weather is good,” Joyce said. “With the community opening up, it would be nice to get at least one visit per family. Maybe that will help them if we get into a second wave.”

Around 10:20 a.m. the morning of the Enghs’ visit, Jones-Harrison’s recreation director, Marnie Lazarus, politely interrupted, informing the women that their time together was over: “I hate to break it up, but all good things must come to an end.”

Next up was Rob Dewey, dropping in on his 97-year-old mother, Elizabeth. They chatted about fried chicken, medical bills and Rob’s seven sisters, with Elizabeth praising her only son as “the best guy in the whole wide world.”

It wasn’t long before Lazarus piped up — “That’s the voice of 15 minutes” — and it was Rob’s turn to descend the stairs, grateful for the visit but a little sad.

“What I’m really eager to do is get back upstairs and be able to help her in her apartment,” he said. “The sucky thing is not getting to touch her or be with her physically for months and months when you know you’re so lucky she’s around and in such good shape.”

He said he had faith things would turn out all right.

“When it started, you didn’t know — is it 50-50 that she’s going to make it? She’s basically locked in this dangerous place,” he said. “But as far as I can tell, they’ve done a first-rate job of managing everything. … I think she’s going to live forever.”