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In Maine Nursing Homes Besieged By COVID-19, Staff Have Provided More Than Medical Care

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Nancy Good
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Pat Fahey, a resident of the Barron Center nursing home in Portland, has been isolated from relatives during the coronavirus pandemic, but the facility's workers have helped her feel connected.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had staggering effects on long-term care facilities this past year. They have accounted for about 10 percent of all coronavirus cases in Maine, but nearly 60 percent of all deaths. 

But serious illness and death have not been the only challenges: residents have also endured loneliness. And many have relied on staff for connection and support. 

That’s been the case for families such as Nancy Gallinaro and her mom, Olive Bentum. 

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The decision to move a parent into a nursing home is typically not an easy one, but last summer, Gallinaro decided it was time to move Bentum from assisted living in Calais into the Barron Center nursing home in Portland. It's closer to where Gallinaro lives. 

But while Gallinaro and her mom are no longer separated by hundreds of miles, they are separated by COVID. They've gone months without seeing each other in person. Visits are virtual. 

"Being that I live here, so close, I would be with her every single day right now, and I would have since the day I put her in there. It's just so — ugh,” Gallinaro says. “I drive by it every day, twice a day. It's right there, and I cannot see her."

Gallinaro says her mom has dementia, and she's happy with the care she's receiving at the Barron Center. But there is an inescapable reality that life in a nursing home during the pandemic can be isolating and monotonous. That's how social worker Haley Hollis has heard Olive Bentum describe her days. 

“I know sometimes you say it's kind of lonely,” Hollis says during a conversation with Bentum. “Going through this experience is very lonely.” 

“Yes it is,” Bentum responds. 

Bentum also agrees when Hollis adds: “I know she's said before that she just wishes she could have a hug.” 

Just next door, that's something that Pat Fahey also misses: "Physically putting my arms around the people I love. I want to kiss 'em and hug 'em.”

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Credit Nancy Good
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Pat Fahey

Fahey has brain cancer. She moved into the Barron Center just before Christmas with her husband. But he's in a different unit — in memory care. The only way they've been able to see each other is through the app FaceTime. 

"Isolation is the top complaint,” Fahey says.

The physical separation has also been agonizing for Fahey's family. Her daughter, Nancy Good, says the day she and her sister moved their parents in, they literally had to drop them off at the door.

"We couldn't go in. We have never been in the facility to even know what it looks like, what it smells like, meet the people, see their rooms,” she says. 

Good says she didn't know if she'd see her parents again in personwhen they had to contend with an outbreak of COVID-19 at the Barron Center. Seventy residents became sick, including her mom. Fourteen died. Good counted on staff more than ever to be bedside caregivers — not just medically, but emotionally. 

"We've had to rely on staff to be our eyes, to be our hands, to be our hearts,” she says. 

One staff member who has filled that role is Raeanne Burgess, who works in life enrichment. 

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Credit Raeanne Burgess
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Raeanne Burgess, a life enrichment worker at the Barron Center in Portland, has had to do much more one-on-work with residents of the nursing home during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Here's some beautiful flowers for a beautiful lady,” Burgess says to Fahey during a visit on her 85th birthday. 

"Aren't those beautiful! I feel spoiled,” Fahey says. 

Before the pandemic, Burgess planned group activities like bingo and cornhole. But the COVID-19 outbreak meant that for months, residents had to stay in their rooms, so enrichment became one-on-one. Burgess would read to residents, paint their nails, sometimes just sit with them and talk. 

"She's a ray of sunshine. She makes me happy. She listens to me,” Fahey says. "I don't think you could replace her. There's not that many people in this world that has the gift that she has to deal with people."

Fahey's daughter says Burgess gives her mom the connection she needs. 

"We've been on the phone with our mom, and when Raeanne walks in the door, we are no longer the focus of her attention. She'll go, 'Oh, hi, Raeanne. How was your weekend? Oh, it's so good to see you today.' And completely forgets that she's on the phone with one of her daughters,” Good says. 

“So what I've done is say, 'Mom, would you like to visit with Raeanne and I'll talk to you tomorrow?' 'Yes, that would be great to dear. Bye!' And quickly will hang up with me because her focus is all about visiting with her new friend." 

Olive Bentum also relishes visits from Burgess, who brings her homemade banana bread and plays board games such as Yahtzee with her. 

"She makes you feel warm. Not, not put upon,” Bentum says. 

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Credit Raeanne Burgess
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Raeanne Burgess helped celebrate Mardi Gras with the residents of the Barron Center nursing home in Portland.

When Burgess started at the Barron Center seven years ago, she worked in housekeeping, then the kitchen. But she always found a reason to pop into residents' rooms. A few years ago, she took classes so she could get a job in life enrichment, and she's felt more urgency to keep residents' spirits up in the midst of the pandemic.

"When I go home and I'm laying in bed at night, they're going through my head. What can I do for this one? What can I do for that one? What can I make do to make it fun today? What can we do to change things up?” she says.

On her floor, Burgess visits with about 40 residents every day.

"I feel very, very strongly we, we work in their home, you know we don't — they're not in our workplace, we're in their home." 

"I feel so fortunate to have her, because it's not easy to end up in a place like this,” says Fahey, who thinks the Barron Center will likely be her last home. "I mean I know this is going to be my life, and I'm not going to get better. I know that. I've been told."

In-person visits at the Barron Center are tentatively planned to resume at the end of March. 

But for now, Burgess has become a family member Fahey and Bentum can have in their home during the pandemic. 

For more stories in Deep Dive: Coronavirus, visit mainepublic.org/coronavirus.