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Loneliness of seclusion weighs heavy on dementia patients; caregivers hope vaccinations will help

PHOTO COURTESY OF JES SOTHERN - Don Moss, resident of Chinook Place Retirement Community, gets companionship from Foxy, one of the Corgis that visits the home regularly. Moss has dementia and doesn't understand the COVID restriction that keep him isolated from his family. Chinook Place expects to be able to vaccinate residents as early as this week.

Don Moss is 67, young for a long-term care facility, but Moss has dementia. COVID restrictions don't make sense to him. He doesn't understand why he can't visit his sister, why she can't visit him, why they can't go out to lunch together.

"He feels like he's done something wrong," says his sister, Cyndie Griffin. "He feels like he's in jail because he can't go anywhere, kind of like he's being punished." She senses his dementia is getting worse, and Moss is losing weight.

Griffin sees the vaccine as a step toward getting her brother back.

People who care for residents in nursing homes are eager to get them vaccinated. The death rate is higher among the elderly. Eight out of 10 COVID deaths reported in the U.S. have been adults 65 years or older. Nationwide, more people have died in long-term care facilities, 76,000, compared to 20,000 who died at home. That is why the elderly in nursing homes are among the first in line for the COVID vaccine.

"I'm excited! I hope it brings an end to all of this isolation that has truly had an effect on our seniors." Shantel Vasquez is the administrator of the memory care unit at East Cascade. "It has been sad because they know something's not right, but they can't put their finger on it. They don't get to interact with their familiar faces, which people with dementia need."

This month, Jefferson County nursing home residents are getting their chance at the vaccine. The state has contracted with private pharmacies to administer the injections to Oregonians in nursing homes.

The 50 residents and 75 staff members at East Cascade Retirement Community are getting their shots through Walgreens.

So far, coronavirus infection and death have not been an issue in Jefferson County nursing homes. Caregivers here focus their hope on curing the loneliness their clients experience during the pandemic.

"It just not the same as a vibrant living facility." Rachel Avila, administrator of the assisted living unit at East Cascade, says the isolation has been rough on everybody. No in-person visiting, no shopping trips or outings. "I'm going to be ecstatic when those get brought back."

"I think rural communities have had a harder time than urban communities in seeing the vaccine distributed." Jes Sothern, administrator at the Chinook Place Retirement Community, says her facility is an example of that rural disadvantage. "Our corporation partnered with CVS, and they are not local to Central Oregon."

Sothern says CVS uses the Pfizer vaccine, which needs ultra-cold storage, between -112- and -76-degrees Fahrenheit. Keeping the serum in deep freeze between Portland and Madras creates a logistical problem. Instead, Sothern arranged with Jefferson County Public Health to vaccinate her residents.

"If we have to be more creative, that's what we're going to have to do. Rural communities are always going to be met with the challenges of less access to resources and to care," Sothern said.

The isolation has taken its toll on residents at Chinook Place too. "Depression, anxiety, increased dementia, weight loss. If they're in their final year of life, and they can't spend their last Christmas with their family, you're depriving them of their loved ones."

As she watches her residents suffer, Sothern wishes others could see how their actions affect the lives of others. "I can't do anything to prevent the isolation of my residents until the community at large takes responsibility for not spreading the virus. They have the right not to wear their mask. I'm going to stand behind that. But from a public health perspective, I find it incredibly short-sighted and selfish."

Most residents are eager to get the shot. Avila says some patients and staff have mixed emotions, but she sees acceptance growing for the vaccine. "It warms my heart. I did receive my vaccine, and I'm doing my part in protecting my residents, my community and my family. I'm proud to set an example."

The COVID restrictions hurt family members of residents too. "I feel a little guilty like I'm letting him down. Sorry." Griffin pauses a moment to compose herself as she talks about her brother, Don. "And I miss seeing him. When they first started talking about the vaccine, I was a little hesitant just because it's so unknown. Now I'm so ready for him to be vaccinated, and eventually for us to be vaccinated, so we can get back to some semblance of normal."

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