As local man’s health declines, his family questions why they can’t be his caregivers during the pandemic

ONALASKA, Wis. (WKBT)– It can be a difficult decision to put a loved one in an assisted living home when their health starts to decline. Families try to make the most of it by regular visits and helping with the little things. But COVID-19 has brought that to a halt and some aren’t able to use alternative means to connect with those stuck inside.

To understand what the virus has changed for Carol Thompson, you have to start at the beginning. All the way back to when she met Steven Thompson in a bar.

“Shorty’s– up on the ridge,” said Thompson, with a laugh.

Since that special day, they’ve stood by each other’s side for more than 50 years. That was until he started to slow down.

“Walking was the big thing,” said Thompson.

And there were some memory issues.

“They really couldn’t come up with a diagnosis for us,” Thompson said.

Finally, around August, some answers– Atypical Parkinsonism and Dementia.

“He just kind of went downhill,” Thompson said.

By October, she knew. Other issues started popping up, so they had to make a decision.

“He was never able to recuperate enough for him to bring him home, so he ended up at Mulder,” Thompson said.

The West Salem assisted living facility gave him the care he needed, but she provided so much more. Thompson would go over constantly to give him a shave, feed him meals and just spend time together.

“I told him I’d be back for supper,” Thompson said.

But she couldn’t keep her word.

“We had to leave right then,” Thompson said.

“We were told one day we were done. And we couldn’t even go back down and say goodbye to him,” said Sue Wise, Steven and Carol’s daughter.

Both Thompson and Wise said, because of the coronavirus and emerging CDC guidelines, they were told by staff that visitors had to leave. That was in March.

Since then, special moments have come and gone.

“It was very difficult when the anniversary came along because I wasn’t able to go in to see him at all,” Thompson said.

The facility recently started giving out walkie talkies for people inside and outside to communicate. But it’s not enough.

“It’s hard to get his attention because he’s not able to engage with us,” Wise said.

His condition is worsening. He’s more dependent on the help. Before he could use his hands but now he’s unable to, so someone has to help him from inside the facility. If no one is available, they can’t communicate.

“Somebody has to be there to prompt him to speak to us,” Wise said.

The family believes that the loss of a personal connection has made his health decline even more. They point to other reports of isolation causing “failure to thrive” as a cause for concern.

“I just see him slipping away every day I go,” Wise said.

They’re increasingly frustrated– especially after just last week when Minnesota laid out guidance allowing essential caregivers into long-term care facilities.

“Although technology can help decrease loneliness for some residents, technology is not a sustainable replacement for in-person contact. This is especially true for residents with cognitive impairments, visual and/or hearing difficulties, and mobility limitations as they struggle to maintain connections with loved ones,” said the state report.

The report says essential caregivers are important, in part, because:

  • They detect concerns and advocate on behalf of the resident.
  • They observe and communicate important details and changes in a resident’s condition/behaviors.
  • They assist the resident in management of complex or critical information.
  • They provide emotional support and help honor the resident’s personal values and preferences of
  • They alleviate caregiving tasks for staff and providers.

“I know there is a shortage of help in nursing homes so why not let the people who have taken care of them all along come back and help out with that burden?” Wise said.

The La Crosse County Health Department said during a Wednesday press conference that it’s not so simple.

“[It’s] a big debate over quality of life versus life itself,” said Jennifer Rombalski, director for the La Crosse County Health Department.

But the decisions are based on decreasing potential risks.

“We remain with not having the ability to have visitors in the physical space,” Rombalski said.

The health department acknowledges that some residents can come and go from facilities, but that adds risks.

‘That risk doesn’t just impact that individual, who is in assisted living or long term care, it can impact everybody in that facility.”

But still, they’re allowed. So are the staff. That’s why the family just doesn’t understand. Carol would be willing to wear a mask, get her temperature checked, anything. Anything to be on the other side.

“Everything– it would mean everything to me. And I think it would help him,” Thompson said.

News 8 Now contacted Mulder Health Care Facility to ask about the potential for opening up to caregivers. But we have not heard back from them yet.