James M. Berklan

The angst has been palpable anytime I have picked up the phone this week. 

There hasn’t been panic on the other end. But long-term caregivers, from corporate offices to facility hallways, have been struggling to wrap their brains around an unsolvable puzzle. 

How can they possibly juggle all the usual responsibilities, along with many new ones, with the COVID-19 crisis at hand? Their residents’ welfare is being threatened more than any other group’s and it seems like a fragile house of cards could come down at almost any unlucky location where the invisible menace decides to reveal itself.

American Health Care Association President and CEO Mark Parkinson told a national CNN audience Tuesday that the coronavirus crisis is “perhaps the greatest challenge in the history of our sector.” He could be right. 

And now the long-term care workforce gets to wage battle without family members and many outside helpers who can often ease staff burdens. The federal government and AHCA, the nation’s largest nursing home association, came out Monday in favor or blocking “non-essential” visitors from facilities.

It’s an appropriate move, but now the nation’s professional caregivers have it much tougher than we commoners. We have only the loss of some of our personal liberties to dwell on, while the LTC workforce has everyone’s worries — at home and at work — in their laps.

The new restrictive guidelines are for residents’ own good. But it’s the darnedest way to treat a population that is the most often plagued with, and frequently damaged by, loneliness.

As for those non-essential facility visitors, I’m one of them (being just a family member and all). I’m personally wrestling with how to deal with at least a week without visits. I fully expect that period to grow longer. Yet I actually sympathize with facility employees just as much, if not more. 

To whom will extra burdens and tensions go? Facility aides, nurses and other caregivers, of course. Let’s not even contemplate the horrible ripple effects that would occur if numerous staff members at one site would come down with COVID-19. Check that, it’s actually happened and it’s painful.

Use Skype and FaceTime and other such great technological advances to communicate with your (essentially) quarantined resident, the experts recommend. Great idea — as long as you’re not dealing with an 85-year-old who never really caught on to using a computer, and probably hasn’t even turned on her flip phone for several months (let alone used it for an actual call). And could there be a worse time for landline phones to be on the fritz?

So we get back to the idea of caregivers and aides having to pick up even more slack than usual, whether it’s in skilled, assisted or independent living. There’s maybe never been a more pressured time for employees to perform, or for their managers to recognize their value.

Becoming “just like family” or a “closest friend” never has sounded less like a symbolic cliche. In some ways, this scenario is an extension of those heroic stories we hear about facility staff in the path of a hurricane or flood, evacuating with their residents. Except this involves not fleeing danger but rather hunkering down and trying to keep the microscopic wolves outside the door.

With the infected count and death toll rising by the day, circumstances are still far too raw to draw solid conclusions about how this will play out.

But eventually it will simmer down, and I can already say that it’s remarkable what determined, creative people can do when they put their minds to it. That goes for enterprising policy makers and government agencies working on the big picture, to the frontline facility activity directors and aides who are going to have to make do without many outside influences, including some supplies. They’ll have to employ inside ingenuity more than ever before. The good news is that, by all accounts, they are up to the challenge.

I also predict that when this is all over, long-term care stakeholders will have had their eyes opened to the benefits of not only more frequent hand washing but also the vast potential of telemedicine and other remote technologies. The siege could be long enough that some of these things actually dig deep enough roots so they don’t get backhanded out of the way when the thunder and lightning subside.

But until that storm has passed, there are a few basic tenets that caregivers should live by.

Remain staunch in your principles. Have courage. Be kind.

And always — always — keep up the good fight. 

Follow James M. Berklan @JimBerklan.