For seniors in some care centers, loosened Covid-19 rules mean actual hugs and a respite from isolation

Millions of families across the US have experienced unfathomable pain from the forced separation from their elderly loved ones due to Covid-19 lockdowns. Now, more than six months into the pandemic, Florida has recently eased restrictions to allow limited visitations. CNN's Rosa Flores reports.

Posted: Oct 1, 2020 6:50 PM
Updated: Oct 1, 2020 6:50 PM

Victoria Cerrone remembers the moment her parents tried to kiss through the glass window of a memory care center in South Florida.

"That broke my heart," Cerrone said.

It was three months into the Covid-19 pandemic, and senior care centers were closed to visitors.

Standing inside, beyond the pane of glass, her 85-year-old father, Vittorio Cerrone, wore two or three layers of clothing because he felt cold. His hands were shaking from the effects of his new dementia medication, his daughter remembered. And his eyes peered through the glass with sadness.

Cerrone's 82-year-old mother, Elisabeth Cerrone, had walked between some hedges and was standing as close as she could to the window that separated her from the love of her life. The temperature that day, her daughter recalled, was 95 degrees. A painful silence filled the humid air.

"I think my mom was just happy to see him and be able to get her eyes on him," Cerrone said.

Millions of families across the country have experienced unfathomable pain from the forced separation from their elderly loved ones due to Covid-19 lockdowns at nursing homes, assisted living facilities and long-term care centers. Some families, desperate to connect, made posters and signs and displayed them outside nursing home windows.

More than six months into the pandemic, a handful of states still don't allow visitors. Most states, including Florida, however, have recently eased restrictions to allow limited visitations.

The rule change has made for heartwarming reunions, like the one between Mark Lebenthal and his 89-year-old stepmother, Arlene Lebenthal, at Grand Villa of Delray Beach West in Palm Beach County, Florida.

The visitation rules are strict. Lebenthal had to make an appointment, pass a health screening with a temperature check and dress in full personal protection equipment, or PPE -- all before a staff member escorted him to Arlene's room.

"I love you," Mark said as he hugged her for the first time in months. "You look great."

Arlene was sitting in her wheelchair watching TV when Mark walked in. A smile filled her face. Her silver hair was freshly styled, her make-up was done and she fashioned red reading glasses.

"Give me a kiss," Arlene said as she grabbed Mark's face with one hand and kissed his cheek over his face shield. She shared that while she had played bingo and participated in other activities, not being allowed to have visitors had been "tough."

The conversation quickly turned to Mark's father, Michael Lebenthal, who died in April. His dying wish was that his son find Arlene a comfortable senior living facility, Mark said.

"Make sure she is not alone," Mark remembered his father telling him before passing away. At the time, Arlene was hospitalized, recovering from a severe back injury. She never got to say goodbye to her husband of 45 years. Mark knew she couldn't go back home.

"It was horrible. For a while I didn't feel anything. I felt pain but couldn't feel any emotion," Arlene said.

"He loved you," Mark said.

Until that face-to-face visit with Arlene, the Covid-19 pandemic had made it impossible for Mark to personally confirm that he had delivered on his promise. Senior care facilities in Florida shut their doors to visitors in March.

"It's been challenging," said Sophia Rich, executive director of Grand Villa of Delray Beach West. "Everyone knows that Florida was hit hard by the pandemic."

In Florida, more than 5,500 staff members or residents of long-term care facilities have died since the pandemic began, according to the Florida Department of Health. Nationwide, confirmed Covid-19 cases in nursing home residents has surpassed 231,000, federal data show. Of those, more than 55,800 have died.

In July and August, on average, "more than one nursing home resident was infected every minute, and 11 residents died every hour," a US Senate report released this month found. And despite calls for help from communities across the country, some nursing homes still lacked adequate testing capacity and suffered staff and PPE shortages, the report found.

"It's a real tragedy," said Dionne Polite, AARP's director for state operations for Florida. "We are not supposed to treat our older adults the way that they are being treated right now."

For Victoria Cerrone, the window visits with her father eventually grew too painful, she said. As she stood there, beyond the hedges, she began to see how the image of the successful businessman and world traveler that she remembered was fading away. He was losing weight, becoming agitated, depressed and confused.

"The lack of being able to reassure my father was the hardest thing to go through," Cerrone said. "And he definitely declined as a result of that."

FaceTime visits were also too confusing. "Dementia patients can't understand FaceTime. They need touch. They have to have human touch," Cerrone said.

Desperate to help her father, Cerrone contacted politicians at the local, state and federal levels to advocate for visitations so she and her mother could visit Vittorio in person.

With every month that passed, the heartbreak intensified. Vittorio and Elisabeth Cerrone didn't get to celebrate their 58th wedding anniversary, Father's Day and his birthday.

It would take six months for Florida to ease the visitation rules.

"I gave him a giant hug. I didn't let him go," Cerrone recalled of their in-person reunion. "I just told him I loved him."

Vittorio Cerrone closed his eyes, his daughter remembered, and cried in silence.

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