A woman FaceTimes with a loved one at a Brookdale facility. 

The days of gathering in large crowds, attending family functions, and stuffing your face at cookouts have become distant memories in the face of Covid-19. Even just visiting your grandparents in a senior living facility wasn't a real option in Houston and across Texas for the bulk of this year—until now, that is. 

After more than 20 weeks of isolation, Gov. Greg Abbott reopened nursing homes and assisted living facilities for visitations on August 6, his first move toward loosening the restrictions he put in place on March 15 when he shut down visits to all Texas nursing homes to protect the elderly residents, a population among the most vulnerable and susceptible to the coronavirus. Instead of in-person visits, Texas Health and Human Services, the department that oversees senior living facilities in the state, advised people to embrace alternative means of communication such as FaceTime, Skype, or other video or audio systems for residents to maintain contact with family and friends, until they could safely visit again, according to a release issued at the time of Abbott's announcement. 

Since then nursing homes across Houston, and the state, have worked to find creative solutions for their residents, with some companies leaning into the advice to find other ways to keep their residents connected. Brookdale Senior Living, which has more than 700 facilities across the country and 13 in Houston, has leaned into online options for its residents, including a virtual visit plan through FaceTime and Skype calls to combat loneliness and isolation. Each facility has ensured it has computers, cell phones, Chromebooks, and iPads on standby in order to give the seniors resources to contact their loved ones, says Brookdale CEO and President Cindy Baier. In order to maintain wellness, the devices are sanitized immediately after use. Some facilities have even set up visits through glass doors and patio time with family.

“We know the restrictions can be tough on our residents, their families, and our associates, so we want to brighten up their days even as we protect our people,” says Baier. “In times like these, we are leaning on our technology, scale, and passion for enriching the lives of those we serve.” 

However, for many, technology doesn’t compare to in-person interactions. Houstonian Caitlin O’Neal’s grandmother, who has Alzheimer's, has lived Grace Care Center-Katy & Nstep Rehab in Katy for the past five years. Because of the pandemic, their contact is limited and restricted to an iPad, which is shared among the other residents in the facility. “My main concern is she is used to my dad visiting regularly, but now he’s not allowed to visit. Since she has slight Alzheimer's, she may be thinking ‘Oh, they’re not coming to see me. They just left me here,'” O’Neal says. “Even with phone calls, she may not fully understand we are in a pandemic.”

The isolation has proved necessary, though. Seniors have been the worst-hit age group in this pandemic. Around 80 percent of Covid-19-related deaths across the U.S. have been adults age 65 years and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Houston, according to local health department data, 77 percent of Covid-19-related deaths have been adults age 60 and older, as of August 17. 

And those in long-term living facilities are often at a higher risk of falling severely ill to the virus. O’Neal’s grandmother was hospitalized because of the virus. According to HHS, Harris County nursing and assisted living facilities have reported 2,911 total cases of Covid-19 and 109 Covid-19-related deaths as of August 4. Harris County's Brookdale facilities reported 73 total cases and four deaths as of August 4. Now that the facilities will begin allowing visitors again, it remains to be seen whether this will lead to more facility residents contracting the disease.

But there are some requirements and safeguards required by the state. As visitors now begin to return to these facilities, Abbott has placed strict restrictions on what they can actually do to hopefully prevent further cases. Visitors will be allowed into nursing facilities on a limited basis. Workers at these facilities are required to be tested weekly and they can only permit outdoor visits. 

Meanwhile at assisted living facilities, there can be no active Covid-19 case among the residents and no confirmed cases among the staff for the past two weeks for a visit to take place. While indoor visits are allowed, there should be plexiglass barriers to provide more protection. Oh, and touching is not allowed, so no hugs.

It may not be much, but for Houstonians who’ve been longing to see their loved ones for months, it’s something. 

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