Congregate Care

A sign celebrating essential care workers stands outside a senior living facility in Savage.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on congregate care facilities in the state, as well as across the nation.

A significant impact has been the toll in nursing homes.

According to the AARP Public Policy Institute, there have been 184,000 deaths as of July 2021 of residents and staff of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

At the start of the pandemic, the residents of congregate care facilities were isolated from their families. No grandchildren were stopping by. No weekend lunches or family dinners.

Some families felt the need to take their loved ones out of the nursing homes and care for them at home, which is not always easy for working families, especially in a pandemic.

But in early spring, nursing homes slowly started to reopen as residents and staff have been able to get vaccinated. There’s been at least the appearance of a return to normalcy.

STAFFING

However, the not-so-obvious impact of the pandemic is the lack of staffing for care facilities.

Marc Halpert, chief operating officer of Monarch Healthcare Management, which operates Mala Strana Assisted Living & Rehabilitation Center in New Prague, said they are short qualified caregivers at all of their facilities.

“I’m not sure that’s because of the pandemic or the unemployment, but we need more staff,” Halpert said. “We are offering a 15% increase (in wages) to get more applicants.”

Doug Beardsley, vice president of member services for Care Providers of Minnesota, which represents about 160 skilled nursing facilities and hundreds of assisted living centers across the state, said the staffing shortage started well before the pandemic.

“COVID made it worse,” he said. “It’s difficult work. It’s very challenging, so we’ve lost more people in the workforce than normal.”

AT HOME

According to a 2018 AARP survey, most Americans want to age at home, and more than 90% of Americans 65 and older are doing just that.

Halpert said during the height of the pandemic, family members were taking their loved ones out of facilities to care for them at home, and not all have come back yet.

“With no visitation, people were trying to adjust,” Halpert said. “A lot of people felt like they could take care of their (loved ones) at home and for some, it made things worse. That’s not easy to do. Many people need a trained staff and these kind of facilities.

“It can be very difficult to do it at home by yourself,” he added.

Beardsley said at the peak of the pandemic, it may have been a good plan to take family members out of congregate care if they could provide care at home. There’s less exposure to less people.

But are these people coming back now that there are vaccines available and facilities have had a year to adjust?

“When care is needed, it’s needed,” Beardsley said. So that answer is yes.

With the Delta variant looming, both Halpert and Beardsley said their care facilities are better prepared than when the pandemic first hit.

President Joe Biden has called for a $400 billion investment for home care and nursing homes. In total (as of 2015-16, the most recent data available), the U.S. has around, 15,600 nursing homes with 1.3 million residents.

“We’ve done a ton vaccines to prevent COVID and it’s working,” Halpert said. “We are hoping that trend continues, but we are also better prepared. We’ve had a year and in a half of getting used to this. We’ve had our doors open now for quite some time and we are COVID-free.

“But we still need to be ready for anything that can happen,” he added.

Both Halpert and Beardsley said mask wearing requirements in their care facilities will continue for the foreseeable future.

“It’s a higher risk population, so you have to take higher precautions,” Beardsley said.

Tom Schardin covers sports for Savage and Prior Lake. He is dependable, sarcastic and always joking around. Tom enjoys running and swimming and is often busy coaching his two kids' sports teams.

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