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Nursing Homes and the Right to Visitors During a Pandemic

Thursday, June 11, 2020

By Katherine C. Pearson, Dickinson Law, Penn State

The seminal 1987 Nursing Home Reform Act requires all nursing facilities to care for their residents in a manner that that "will promote ,maintenance or enhancement of the quality of life of each resident." 12 USCA Section 1396r(b)(1)(A).  The same law, at Section 1396r(e)(3),  addresses "access and visitation rights:" 

A nursing facility must - ...  (B) permit immediate access to a resident, subject to the resident's right to deny or withdraw consent at any time, by immediate family or other relatives of the resident; (C) permit immediate access to a resident, subject to reasonable restrictions and the resident's right to deny or withdraw consent at any time, by others who are visiting with the consent of the resident;

(D) permit reasonable access to a resident by any entity or individual that provides health, social, legal, or other services to the resident, subject to the resident's right to deny or withdraw consent at any time .... 

During the pandemic lockdown, states prohibited most visitations, citing the risk of infection from the outside community that could endanger not just the visitor's loved one, but potentially all residents.  States are now beginning to lift or at least ease visitation restrictions, and families are beginning to talk more openly about the impact of the isolation on residents who have not contracted the virus.   This week, NPR has begun airing stories about the challenge of balancing the risks of visitors against the benefits of not just family member visits, but family member involvement in care and socialization for residents.  From one story about Luann Thibodeau and her husband Jeff, who has multiple sclerosis: It wasn't candlelight and soft music that made the 40th anniversary of Luann and Jeff Thibodeau so memorable. It was gazing at each other through the window of Jeff's nursing home in Texas and eating carryout from the Olive Garden. Just the two of them. And a nursing assistant. "She fed him, and I ate mine, and that was it," Luann Thibodeau says. "So that was our 40th wedding anniversary." Luann Thibodeau would bring her husband, Jeff, dinner every night, except Tuesdays, when she had Bible study. Since she's been unable to visit, she says that her husband has become increasingly disinterested in food as his multiple sclerosis has worsened. The Thibodeaus have not been in the same room since mid-March. That's when visitors were banned from nursing homes to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But family members say that talking via FaceTime and holding up signs at windows are no substitute for the hands-on care and emotional support their visits provide. Family members often are an integral part of the care residents in nursing homes receive. They make sure meals are being eaten, clothes are being changed. They also offer invaluable emotional support. . . .  Luann Thibodeau has seen that decline in her husband. She used to bring dinner for him every night except Tuesdays when she goes to Bible Study. She says that as his multiple sclerosis has worsened, he's become increasingly disinterested in food. [She explains]. "I bully him into finishing a meal. And I'll say to him, 'Jeff, you know, this is what an adult man eats. So you need to eat this.' " A staff member can't do what she does. Nursing home residents have rights. So if Jeff Thibodeau tells a nursing assistant that he's done eating after three bites, she has to abide by his wishes. Without his wife's push, the results of her absence is striking.


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