| The Repository
Adam Trevino communicated through sign language with a staff member of GentleBrook Hartville Meadows.
The 42-year-old answered a few questions about restricted visitation at the intermediate care facility because of a surge in COVID-19 cases in Stark County and across the state.
Trevino’s mother drops off items, exchanging greetings from behind the glass door to the facility. Virtual meetings are arranged frequently.
Trevino also has received random cards sent by people he doesn’t even know. Cards inscribed with a positive message and sometimes decorated.
When asked about those gestures, and if they make him feel special, Trevino’s face turned electric with a smile. He nodded enthusiastically.
Longer answers followed through sign language, beyond yes and no. Thanks were expressed for those who make the cards in the Court Angel program through Stark County Probate Court.
Laughter was shared with Mackenzie Butts, a qualified intellectual disabilities professional at GentleBrook Hartville Meadows, a residential facility for individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
The pandemic has been a challenge for residents, Butts said.
“It has completely turned their worlds upside down,” she said, noting music lifts the spirits of residents.
“Sometimes the smallest things count the most,” Butts added. “And whenever they get their cards or get a small letter in the mail, to see them light up, whenever the envelope is given to them or we sit down and get to read it to them, we know their day is made.”
Stark County Probate Judge Dixie Park said the small gestures are critical for those living in isolation during the pandemic.
Phone calls and virtual visits are also beneficial and urged when in-person contact isn’t possible or safe, she said.
For residents of nursing facilities, loneliness can lead to depression and serious health problems, at no fault of caregivers, said Dr. Brian McClain, who provides post-acute care for hospital patients following their release into skilled nursing, assisted living or long-term care facilities.
“The masks and hand sanitizers decrease the spread of the virus but the only way we can decrease the spread of loneliness and despair is the showing of more love and understanding and compassion and kindness,” said McClain, an employee of the Canton-based Pinnacle Care Providers, which works with Aultman Hospital and Mercy Medical Center and other care providers.
“I think it’s not just the right thing to do but we’re actually going to save lives doing that,” McClain said.
‘Cards make a difference’
Park said the impact of isolation on those living in nursing facilities and care centers has been severe in some cases.
“They just lose hope because they’re so isolated and they can’t interact with others and social activities are extremely limited,” the judge said.
“As human beings, we want to have contact,” Park added. “Social interaction is very important. And cards make a difference.”
McClain said residents at care facilities have gone from having full social calendars to often being confined to their rooms.
“All of that life 100% goes away for them,” he said. “So it’s a huge loss for these people; it’s not a little change — it’s dramatic.”
McClain compared prolonged isolation to the harmful effects of smoking a pack a day.
“It sounds crazy,” he said, referring to an increase in the risk of premature death. “But isolation is the equivalence, and I don’t think that is known and front of mind always (with the public).”
Isolation can cause what McClain described as “spiritual distress … and low self-esteem, almost a feeling of worthlessness because they’re so lonely.”
McClain referred to the “halo effect” of COVID-19 — deaths not caused directly by the virus but still related.
A depressed mood can negatively affect the eating and sleeping habits of the elderly, he said. Immune systems are compromised, sometimes leading to heart attacks and strokes.
Symptoms of dementia can increase, McClain said. Falls are more likely.
Court Angel volunteers have made about 1,200 cards this year for the wards of probate court who are living in nursing facilities, care centers and group homes. Another 800 are being made for Christmas and the holiday season.
Betty Kress, 72, of Perry Township, makes cards with the help of her husband, Dan, 74, a fellow Court Angel. Assisting from outside the program is her sister, Anne Brewer, of Canton.
“I can just picture somebody getting a card, even if it’s from a stranger, sitting in a chair or in a bed at a nursing home,” Betty Kress said. “And I can just picture the smile on their face just thinking somebody’s thinking of me.”
Kress personalizes the cards with puffy stickers of Santa, snowflakes or other artistic touches.
“This is the best time ever to do something like that,” she said. “Every card I make, I think of what kind of person this might go to.”
Miriam Baughman, of North Canton, is a volunteer guardian through Guardian Support Services.
She’s witnessed firsthand the effects of the pandemic on the routines and lives of those she visits.
Visitation had been restored previously during a lull in coronavirus cases, Baughman recalled.
During a visit with a resident, she sat in the dining room six feet apart and wore a face covering. The man didn’t understand the restrictions imposed due to the virus. And he remembered Baughman’s face but not her name. “The first thing he said was, ‘Where have you been?”
Now such visits aren’t possible, including those outside the windows of some care facilities, Baughman said.
And she can’t drop off candy and homemade muffins because of health and safety concerns.
“I just feel so bad for them,” Baughman said of the wards she visits, “because I can go out and get in my car and drive away and they are stuck in their room.”
Barbie Phillips, activities director at Green Meadows Care Center, a rehabilitation and skilled nursing facility in Nimishillen Township, said the cards sent through probate court make its residents feel special.
Especially during a “very challenging time,” she said. Elderly residents miss their loved ones, they miss “human touch,” she said.
“The world right now, it’s day-by-day,” Phillips observed. “And to see a smile on their face (when receiving a card) is amazing. Just that little bit of an extra something … to give them hope that there are people out there that care.
“A wee, little gesture like that can have a huge impact.”
Other care providers have shared anecdotes with McClain about the effects of isolation during the pandemic.
A woman in a nursing facility had gone from being fiercely independent to where “everything is wrong — there’s nothing right,” he relayed.
After a nurse had brought the issue to the attention of the woman’s family, she was given a photo album capturing happier times.
The woman’s mood totally changed for the better, McClain said.
“She looks at (the scrapbook) over and over,” said the health professional, who also encourages the public to use video phone calls and other technological tools to reach out to those who are alone during the health crisis.
“Being able to lay eyes on someone virtually is very, very important.”
Isolation extends beyond the walls of nursing facilities, McClain said.
Judge Park echoed those sentiments, agreeing its impact has been felt nearly universally in society.
A neighbor, family members and friends could be devastatingly isolated inside their own home, McClain said.
“I worry about the widowed lady who is living by herself and has very scant social interaction,” he said.
A card from the mail can be profound and sentimental for an older generation.
“I’ve seen it personally from being in their rooms when they receive a card or letter,” McClain said of those he cares for. “… It stays on their nightstand and they read it many, many times because it’s that personal connection.
“If you’re stuck in a room by yourself, it’s literally a lifeline.”
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