“I’m just sitting here, doing nothing.”
That’s what Emanuel Aragosa says when I reach him on the phone and ask him whether he has time to talk.
Up until winter, when he fell ill, the 88-year-old was still quite active, working several days a week at his longtime family business, Marty’s True Value Hardware on Van Vranken Avenue on Schenectady’s Northside.
Aragosa has since recovered, but he isn’t permitted to leave his Glenville assisted living facility, which has been locked down since March due to the pandemic, or have visitors.
He no longer sees his six children, or his many grand-children and great-grandchildren. He goes outside a couple times a day, and watches television. The lounge where he once socialized now goes mostly unused by residents who have been keeping to themselves.
“It’s not easy,” Aragosa says, of his ongoing isolation. “It’s not a way to live forever.”
Three weeks ago, New York announced that nursing homes and long-term care facilities could reopen to visitors and for families that had gone months without seeing loved ones, this was welcome news.
But for some, the happiness soon turned to frustration.
Under the state’s strict new reopening guidelines, visitors remain barred from most of the state’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
Just 65 of the state’s 613 nursing homes have resumed in-person visitation, according to the New York State Department of Health. About 200 homes are eligible to reopen to visitors, but have not submitted plans to DOH, as required.
For many facilities, the barrier to reopening is a requirement that a home be COVID-free for at least 28 days before allowing visitors in again.
That might sound reasonable, given the high coronavirus death toll at the state’s nursing homes, but family members I spoke with viewed it as unnecessarily strict — a milestone that, for many facilities, might prove unattainable.
“It seems very unrealistic,” Schenectady resident Mark Buddle, who runs the watchdog Twitter feed Better Nursing Homes for New York State, told me.
Buddle’s father resides in a local nursing home, and Buddle has been eager to see him.
But a staff member at the facility tested positive for COVID earlier this month, before the facility had been virus-free for 28 days, and he hasn’t been able to get in.
Aragosa’s situation is similar.
He said that shortly after the state announced the resumption of in-person nursing home visits, a staff member at his assisted living facility, Judson Meadows on Swaggertown Road in Glenville, tested positive for the virus, prolonging the lockdown.
“My siblings say, ‘We’ll probably never see dad again,’” Anne Rockwood, Aragosa’s daughter, told me. “Well, that’s not acceptable to me.”
Rockwood and Buddle both believe the state needs to recognize that we’re going to be living with COVID-19 for a while, and approach the problem of nursing home visitation with more creativity.
“I get the need for safety,” Rockwood said. “And God forbid one of us gave (COVID) to my father. But this is going to be a long-term thing and we need to figure out how to get people in to see their people.”
Rockwood is right.
The risks of nursing home visitation are well-known, but that doesn’t mean facility lockdowns should continue indefinitely. Lengthy periods of social isolation can also be bad for one’s health, both physically and mentally. At some point, we have to ask how much longer we can ask elderly residents of long-term care facilities that haven’t reopened to live this way.
“A good friend of mine down the hall said, ‘What a way to end my life,’” Aragosa said. “Every time I turned around, someone was here to see her. Now nobody’s here.”
In a statement, the Department of Health noted that the agency is adhering to guidelines from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid.
“DOH understands the need to strike a delicate balance between allowing visitors while also keeping residents safe during this unprecedented pandemic,” the statement read.
One thing I’ve learned from those with relatives in nursing homes is that family members often serve as caregivers, advocating for loved ones and providing much-needed care – haircuts, feedings, toiletings, etc. Their companionship is vital, helping stave off loneliness, depression and other ills.
Indeed, a recent article in the medical journal JAMA reports that seniors in nursing homes “with ongoing strict social isolation had increased depression, anxiety, worsening dimension and failure to thrive.”
That’s not good – and it needs to be a bigger part of the discussion when considering how and when to permit family members to visit nursing homes.
Rockwood is blunt when describing the lockdown’s effect on her father: “He’s bored. He’s really bored.”
There have been other, negative impacts.
Earlier this week, Aragosa told me that he hadn’t had a haircut in months, that his toenails weren’t getting trimmed and that his feet weren’t getting looked at regularly – a matter of particular importance because he has diabetes, a disease that can lead to serious foot problems. The people who used to provide these services haven’t been on site since the lockdown started, he explained.
When I caught up with Aragosa on Wednesday, he had some good news: “I got a haircut,” he told me. “I feel 10 pounds lighter.”
Despite his complaints, Aragosa likes living at Judson Meadows, which did not return a call for comment on Wednesday.
“It’s a wonderful place,” he said. “I love everybody here.” Overall, “They’ve done a good job. None of us residents have gotten the virus. They’ve been able to keep it away.”
It hasn’t been the easiest year for Aragosa, whose wife of 65 years, Marilyn, died last fall. In early winter he was hospitalized with flu-like symptoms, suffered kidney failure and temporarily ended up on dialysis. Then the pandemic hit.
For months, Buddle implored the Cuomo administration to reopen nursing homes to visits from family members. Now that the state has done that, he’s pushing for new guidelines – a “more reasonable approach” – that will make it easier for people like him to see loved ones.
He questions whether a staff member testing positive should result in a nursing home staying closed for another 28 days – “once they find out they’re positive, they’re out of the building” – and wonders why family can’t visit on a limited basis if they don personal protective gear such as masks.
Buddle’s father has dementia and aphasia, a language disorder that makes it hard to communicate.
“I call three times a day to check on my father,” Buddle said. “To go another two to three months like this – it doesn’t seem right morally or ethically.”
“This is not just about my dad,” Rockwood said. “It’s about everybody’s mom and dad.”
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.