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What to Do If You Butt Heads With a Loved One's Nursing Home

Dealing with a New York care facility during COVID-19

Gwen is an only child who lived with her mother her entire life. Two years ago, when her mother’s care needs became too great, Gwen placed her in a nearby care facility with a good reputation and visited her often—sometimes several times a day. When the pandemic hit and nursing homes went on lockdown, Gwen feared for her mother’s health without social interaction. Then, on Sept. 17, new guidelines were issued to allow limited visitation—so long as it was outdoors, 6 feet apart, and parties had tested negative and wore masks.

“The issue is that her mom is legally blind, can’t hear, and has dementia, so it’s almost like not having a visit at all,” says Kim M. Smith, an elder law attorney in Melville. “She feels it’s not comforting to her mom. Previously, it was her visits that kept her going. Now, with no contact with the outside world, she has severely declined.”

Gwen contacted Smith, and they reached out to the New York State Department of Health, asking for closer contact. The response: “New York State is standing by the no-touch policy, and the family member and administrators should discuss how the family can meet safely.” They noted that filing a grievance was always an option. But the facility is providing good care, so Smith’s client has not done that.

“It is an extreme case, but it’s isolating for families, and you hate to see that with people in their later years. It’s tough, because this is the time in their life when they need their family to be around them,” Smith says.

“For the most part,” notes Wendy H. Sheinberg, a trusts and estates and elder law attorney at Rivkin Radler in Uniondale, “the feedback I have received from people is that they seem to understand that their loved one may be at greater risk of infection, and they’re appreciative of the precautions facilities have taken.”

Some facilities have been creative about finding alternative ways to interact. “I had a family who, for their mom’s 100th birthday, asked the facility to put their mom in a room on the first level and celebrated through the window,” Smith says. “In another case, someone actually got a tree company to put them in a bucket and raise them to the second level for a window visit.”

Countless aides, nurses and social workers have also used their personal devices to connect people by call or video. “It’s technically challenging to me,” Smith notes. “For someone in their 80s to use videoconferencing is interesting, to say the least.”

For those who have had difficulties working with care facilities, the attorneys have some tips.

“Make people be your friend,” Sheinberg says. “With my own family, I send, say, a dozen cupcakes to the charge nurse and the nursing station, because I want people to recognize my loved one has people that love them and care about them. People do tend to go the extra mile when you’re nice to them. So let’s avoid butting heads—after all, they’re dealing with the same fear that we’re all dealing with—and try to find a way to get what we want and make sure our loved one is safe.”

In terms of taking official steps, every facility should have a state ombudsman. “They are there to represent the resident as an intermediary and can recommend options,” Smith says.

Then there are elder law attorneys. “I think it’s always good to reach out to legal representation, in general, because there may be other issues that need to be addressed as well,” Sheinberg says. 

One thing COVID-19 has taught everyone is that we all could use a bit more preparation. “The time to plan,” Sheinberg says, “is when you don’t have an emergency.”

Bringing a parent home

Many families have opted to pull a loved one out of a facility; however, one risk is that the facility may be full when the pandemic subsides. Also, it’s not as simple as packing up and leaving.

“The facility is required to ask them for a safe plan of discharge,” Sheinberg says. “That would be true whether or not we were in a pandemic. … They have to make sure that they’re not just sending somebody out there to wind up endangered and without proper care.”

An attorney can assist with these plans, as well as find a geriatric home-care manager if needed. For more information, see our overview of elder law.

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