Nearly two-thirds of nursing home residents do not leave their rooms to socialize anymore since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, a new survey by healthcare research group Altarum has revealed.

In addition, more than 75% of residents said they have felt lonelier following the ban on visitors implemented by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services in mid-March. In September, the agency issued new guidance that laid a framework for providers to resume in-home visitation. The agency cited the emotional and physical toll that the bans had on residents as a reason for the move. 

The survey featured responses from more than 360 residents in 36 states. Findings also showed how much social interactions, both inside and outside nursing homes, have declined during the pandemic. 

Fifty-four percent of residents said they aren’t participating in any in-home organized activities, while just 13% said they’re eating their meals in the dining room. Prior to the pandemic, 14% of residents said they weren’t participating in activities and nearly 70% were eating in the dining room. 

Additionally, it found that 93% of residents did not leave their nursing home in a given week for routine activities, like shopping or visiting family, since the public health crisis. That number was 42% before the pandemic. 

“Hearing an elder say they feel like they are in prison is heartbreaking. We need to change this,” said Sarah Slocum, co-director of Altarum’s Program to Improve Eldercare.

Strategies to reduce loneliness 

Dr. Eleanor Feldman Barbera
Dr. Eleanor Feldman Barbera

Many facilities have offered more video chats and phone calls for residents and families since the onset of the pandemic, which is a great strategy, but there’s more they can to reduce feelings of loneliness, according to aging expert psychologist Eleanor Feldman Barbera, Ph.D. 

She suggested providers increase their number of recreation staff, if possible, and offer more safely spaced activities for residents. Examples of those types of activities include mobile fishing carts and doorway bingo.

“Engaging the community with a letter writing campaign, photos of pets, etc., is another way to promote connection with people who might not otherwise be involved with the nursing home. It’s also a way of promoting the home to those in the community,” Barbera told McKnight’s Long-Term Care News

She also suggested that facilities “make good use of psychologists on the team.”

“They are one of the few staff members whose job it is to actually sit down and talk with the residents for an extended amount of time on a consistent basis. Multiple residents have commented to me during this period about how I’m the only one who visits them,” she said. 

“The psychologist can monitor their moods to be sure their depression isn’t worsening, increase the frequency of sessions, refer them to the psychiatrist for antidepressants if needed, request a compassionate care visit,” she added. 

Barbera noted that providers will likely be dealing with this current situation for “far too long,” which means facilities will have to be creative about how they facilitate visits. 

“Think heated outdoor areas or plexiglass partitions in a corner of the lobby,” she explained.