When Catherine Wyland’s great-nephew had his third son on Sept. 10, she thought about how she had held his older children shortly after they were born – and how that was impossible during the COVID-19 pandemic. The 96-year-old resident of Caritas House understood the restrictions imposed by the virus, but felt a familial draw to the new baby.

“I think all women love babies, but when anybody in the family is having a baby, I’m having a baby,” she said.

So when her great-nephew brought his 1-month-old to Caritas House to meet her, she was delighted – even if they had to sit on opposite sides of a window.

“I went out on the porch, and he was on the deck, and he held [the baby] up to the window… It was wonderful,” she said.  “I didn’t hold him. I didn’t touch him. But I saw him, and that was enough … One of these days, I’m going to hold him!”

In March, after the outbreak of the pandemic, federal health officials issued guidance preventing most nursing home visits. As federal rules eased over the following months, many states slowly permitted nursing homes to begin visits again, with strict regulations in place.

Maryland began allowing outdoor visits over the summer and indoor visits in early October. Catholic Charities’ Caritas House and St. Elizabeth Rehabilitation and Nursing Center followed federal and state guidance, methodically developing protocols to host residents’ meetings with loved ones, recognizing the importance of in-person connections for many people.

“Folks aren’t lounging on the sofa watching TV together like they used to … and we’re still far away from that,” said Tim Scherer, director of Caritas House. “That has been the biggest hardship, and caused the most heartache – people not being able to see each other. … It was a no-brainer to try to get these [visits] rolling as soon as possible. It’s therapeutic for everyone.”

The two Catholic Charities facilities started hosted some outdoor visits in July and August. Mild fall weather has allowed those to continue, even as Caritas House hosted its first indoor visit on Oct. 20.

Strict regulations – and creative solutions

At Caritas House, indoor visits are scheduled one at a time and restricted to only two visitors at once. Before entering a facility, visitors must fill out a health-screening questionnaire, get their temperatures checked and review a visitation agreement. Once inside, they need to wear masks and stay in designated areas. Visits take place in a part of the lobby near windows that overlook a garden and let in fresh air. Furniture is spaced 6 feet apart, and can be thoroughly wiped down – for example, no fabric couches.

While necessary, the restrictions present some challenges.

“Staying 6 feet apart from folks that may be hearing impaired is not the easiest thing to do,” Scherer said, especially because many “rely heavily on reading lips, and with masks, you can’t read lips.”

Staff members often help by sitting beside the residents to relay information they cannot hear. Residents also find creative solutions. After Wyland had trouble hearing her daughter at their first recent in-person visit, she started bringing along the portable phone from her room, explaining, “we see each other, but talk by phone.”

Wyland, whose daughter lives nearby and has visited regularly, said there is not a lot of difference between outdoor and indoor visits, although she is grateful for the recent indoor option.

“You can’t come any closer, you can’t touch, you have plexiglass between you, and … you’re still 6 feet apart … only you don’t have the weather to contend with,” she said. “It’s going to get too cold to sit outside for 20 minutes. Inside, you’re warm and you don’t have the bad weather to put up with.”