Commentary: Distancing at senior care facilities is devastating families

It’s not just facility residents who have suffered from loneliness, depression and fear for three long months. So have their loved ones.

By Natalie Zeleznikar, CEO of the Diamond Willow Assisted Living facilities in Alexandria and nine other central and northern Minnesota communities

June 10 was a good day in Minnesota, as restaurants, hair salons, gyms and other businesses were allowed to reopen and many people got to return to their old routines.

While those moves were great for businesses’ financial health and citizens’ mental health, there remains one large segment of our state that is still locked down: elderly Minnesotans in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. And the continuing separation from their loved ones is having devastating effects on their lives.

During the past few months, we’ve all seen heartwarming photos of residents in senior care facilities touching the window in their room, with an adult son or daughter touching the other side of the window from outside.

Yet that one-inch barrier still felt like a million miles, because it’s not the same as being in each other’s presence. Nor is communicating by phone or Zoom. It’s not just facility residents who have suffered from loneliness, depression and fear for three long months. So have their loved ones.


Safety precautions were and still are necessary. More than 80 percent of COVID-19 deaths in Minnesota have been among residents in senior care facilities. Those of us who work in this industry know the safeguards have saved lives.

We also know that now is the time to partially reopen these facilities, so families can get back together.

Nearly all senior care facilities have outdoor courtyards with benches, tables and the fresh air that’s so easy to take for granted. If outdoor dining was identified as a safe first step in reopening restaurants, why not allow outdoor interaction as a safe first step in reuniting loved ones at senior care facilities? Large tents could even be erected to protect people from wind and rain, just as many Minnesota restaurants recently did for their outdoor dining customers.

Everyone would still wear masks at senior facilities, and everything would still be thoroughly sanitized. Staffs would continue to closely monitor the residents in their care, while also taking the temperatures of visiting family members. Everyone’s health and safety would still be the top priority.

At some future date, hopefully sooner rather than later, Minnesota will deem it safe to allow visitors back inside senior facilities. For now, allowing families to get back together outdoors is a safe, easy and necessary step.

Let’s not delay any longer. The sad reality is that while you and I could wait another few weeks before greeting each other in a coffee shop, the elderly don’t always have that luxury. Many are not only wondering when they’ll get to say hello to their families again, they’re wondering if they’ll ever get to say a final goodbye. In person.

Minnesotans are welcoming the logical steps being taken to safely raise opportunities for businesses, employees and customers. Now we need to do the same for those who raised us.


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