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Some Families Reunite With Nursing Home Residents As Visitation Rules Approved

diame mcmillen makes heart sign with hand toward her mom
Diane McMillen
The Florida Channel
Diane McMillen and her sister donned face shields and gave their mom an “air hug” from 6 feet away on the patio of a Tampa assisted living facility.";s:

Some families have been able to see their loved ones in nursing homes and assisted living facilities face-to-face for the first time in months, now that the state has approved recommendations to resume visitation.

On Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed off on the guidelines that a state task force provided last week. Some facilities had already started allowing limited visits ahead of the announcement.

Diane McMillen and her sister got a chance to spend time with their mother on Monday evening at the assisted living facility she lives at in Tampa.

They donned face shields and “air-hugged” their mom from six feet away on the patio. The home started allowing scheduled outdoor visits with safety precautions this week after the state task force included those in its recommendations.

Nearly six months of video calls and window visits were taking a toll on McMillen and her 85-year-old mother, who was suffering from isolation and depression.

Outside on the patio, she asked her mom how it felt to at least see her daughters in person and not through a screen.

“It is nice,” her mom said, adding with a sigh, “It's nicer than not at all."

Diane McMillen
Credit Diane McMillen
The Florida Channel
Diane McMillen's mother, who is 85, was happy to see her daughters face-to-face rather than through a screen.

McMillen said as great as it felt to take the first steps towards a proper reunion, the visit was a bit awkward.

A staff member stood a short distance away supervising and asked them to leave as soon as their half hour was up. And McMillen said it was hard to not hug her mom or hold her hand.

“It just is not natural, it’s not normal to not be able to touch, greet, hug, and that’s the hardest part because when you walk away, that is the hardest part to get, that you have no human touch at all,” she said.

This was considered a general visit, which the state has stricter rules for.

General visitation is only allowed at facilities that have not had new cases of COVID-19 among residents or staff in the last two weeks. Up to five people can be approved as visitors, with only two allowed at a time. Social distancing and masks are required.

But the state is also now allowing "essential caregivers" who wear full PPE inside the facilities. They will help with things like bathing, feeding and emotional support, the latter a point of contention during the state task force meetings.

Department of Health Secretary Scott Rivkees opposed including emotional support, fearing it would open the door for too many people to become essential caregivers. He said Florida is the only state of dozens that have allowed visits to resume that has deemed emotional support essential.

But task force member Mary Daniel, who earned national attention after she took a dish-washing job at her husband's memory care facility in order to see him, argued emotional support is vital to both residents and their families. The rest of the group ended up agreeing.

RELATED: 'We're Desperate': Families Of Nursing Home Residents Demand Visitation

McMillen, a member of the Facebook group that Daniel formed called Caregivers For Compromise, said she appreciates Daniel's advocacy on that issue.

Essential caregivers don't have to distance themselves from their loved ones, which McMillen said is important.

"It will be an opportunity for at least one or two people in a family to have that physical touch, to provide that mental well-being," she said.

McMillen and her sister are requesting to be their mother's two essential caregivers, with only one allowed to go into her facility at a time. Essential caregivers for residents at facilities for people with developmental or intellectual disabilities are allowed to both visit at once.

It’s still unclear how long it will take facilities to formally approve these caregivers.

The guidelines also allow for compassionate visitation to help residents through situations such as end of life or the death of a loved one.

The rules are meant to allow visitation while limiting the risks of spreading COVID-19 in nursing homes. The virus has killed more than 4,700 residents and staff statewide.

Some elder care advocates were critical of the final policy, particularly because it doesn’t require visitors be tested. Gov. DeSantis said facilities are free to do so if they please, so long as the testing follows Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Task force members said Floridians can expect various facilities to move at different paces when it comes to allowing visitation to resume. The inconsistency frustrates some family members like Diane McMillen, but nursing home providers say the flexibility is essential.

McMillen said she is anxious for her mother’s assisted living facility to designate her as an essential caregiver and is still worried about how long the virus will prevent a return to normalcy. But ultimately she said she is very grateful for the state’s ability to compromise with families and is just happy the days of window visits seem to be over for now.

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.