How to Support Families and Residents Through the Joy and Grief of Reopening Visits

Morgan Holien

Morgan Holien, administrator, The Birches at Trillium Woods

As the weather improves and COVID-19 vaccination efforts progress, facilities are able to offer more visitation. Reopening those visits may mean that family members see their loved ones in person for the first time in a year.

This can evoke all sorts of emotions for everyone involved. Families may feel uncertainty and anxiety around in-person visits, as well as sadness about all that has been missed over the past year, alongside the joy of reconnecting.

Morgan Holien is an administrator at The Birches at Trillium Woods, a senior life plan community in Plymouth, Minnesota. Holien shared insights into how the community is managing visits and supporting both families and residents during this time.

Changes to In-Person Visits

Holien reports that the community is allowing visitation per the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) guidelines.

“We have had an active population participating in telehealth, window, and outdoor visits throughout the pandemic but the most rewarding update to the guidelines was seeing our fully vaccinated residents physically embrace their loved ones almost a whole year after the pandemic began. The whole body, long lasting hugs those first visits that physical touch was approved brought all of us – resident, family, and caregivers – to tears,” she explains.

Preparing for Visitation

Family members who see a loved one in person for the first time in months might be surprised by health declines or lost weight. Holien reports that The Birches at Trillium Woods took steps to ensure that this wasn’t a challenge they would face when in-person visits began. She explains that families, especially immediate family and each resident’s primary contacts, have received updates throughout the year. Staff worked within the state and federal visitation guidelines to connect residents and loved ones with compassionate care visits, telehealth and window visits, and essential caregiving.

When the pandemic began, the community took the additional step of dividing out the resident population and assigning an interdisciplinary team member to act as an “Onsite Resident Representative.” That person’s main role was to engage with the residents one-on-one, and then to communicate with families several times a week. “All of this to say, our team here at The Birches worked very hard to prevent this exact occurrence,” explains Holien. “While families could not be in the building, we tried our best to bridge that gap to keep them involved in their loved one’s care.”

Staff play an important role in facilitating these visits, and the community focused on preparing staff for some of the challenges they might encounter, too. “Our community has always educated our team members to focus on fulfilling our Extraordinary ImpressionsTM hospitality promises during their interactions with residents, families, and co-workers,” says Holien. “For example, these include striving to anticipate needs and act accordingly, to listen and respond enthusiastically in a timely manner, and to make you feel important.”

To prepare for indoor visitation, the community refreshed those skills and also introduced sensitivity training to prepare staff to deal with the psychosocial effects of the pandemic. “Our team is equipped to assist families to the best of their ability and then to get another team member involved as needed if they encounter a challenging situation.”

The Birches at Trillium Woods has also focused on supporting its residents throughout the entire pandemic. Holien reports that the community has a strong relationship with The Associated Clinic of Psychology (ACP). ACP providers met with residents via telehealth throughout the pandemic. As regulations allow the community to open, providers resumed onsite resident visits. “For our families, our strong interdisciplinary team continues communicating with them multiple times a week, often serving as a support for families just as they do the residents,” says Holien.

Beginning In-Person Visitation in Your Facility

Holien recommends that facilities that are about to begin in-person, indoor visitation be conscious of their residents’ comfort level in terms of who visits, how frequently those visits occur, and whether or not they’re comfortable with physical contact. “What we noticed here was that of course that residents wanted to see their families and embrace them, but that the psychological concerns with COVID-19 are very real.

After a year in a hopefully safe isolated bubble, some of our residents were overwhelmed with the number of family members who wanted to do indoor visits and did not feel it was safe enough yet to bridge the 6-foot social distancing bubble,” says Holien.

Staff met with each resident individually to discuss their comfort level, and then they helped residents communicate that comfort level to their families. When in-room visits began, the community also maintained the visitation lounges so that residents who weren’t comfortable with visitors in their room had another place to go.

Opening up in-person visitation opportunities is an exciting step forward, but it also brings some unique emotional challenges for both families and residents. Facilities that are prepared for these conflicting emotions can better support families and residents during this time.

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