PITTSBURGH — Kathy Huff lived just a short drive from her mom in Butler for many years. Ninety-three-year old Janice Snow loved many of the simple things in life.
“We baked cookies together, we sewed together, I did her place mats,” Kathy said, describing the many good times they spent together. “She loved car rides and traveling.”
By February 2020, though, Snow needed more assistance than her daughter could provide. Huff and her siblings made the difficult decision that it was time for their mom to go into assisted living.
Snow moved into the Memory Care Unit at Waters of Wexford Assisted Living, and just two weeks later COVID-19 hit.
“Lockdown! No visits, no more,” Kathy said. “Here I had promised her-- Mom, I will be down there every day. We’ll go for car rides.”
It was devastating to both of them.
The pain of isolation
The pain of isolation felt by residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities is very real and is having a serious impact.
“We see people becoming more and more withdrawn, not participating, not interacting,” said Kim Shetler, ombudsman specialist with the Pennsylvania Department of Aging.
Shetler says residents are not only experiencing more depression, but also a rapid acceleration in physical decline. As an advocate for long-term care residents for 30 years, she says this is worse than anything she’s seen.
“I think we will have long-range post-traumatic stress from this,” she said.
During the COVID-19 crisis, she says it’s more important than ever for family members to try to stay connected with their loved ones in these facilities.
Letters to Mom
Kathy tried calling her mom and visiting through the window, but because Snow had a hard time hearing and seeing, she decided to start writing letters.
“I wanted to tell Mom how much I love her. How much she meant to me and how much she meant to our entire family,” Kathy said. “This was my lifeline to Mom.”
Writing letters and cards became a weekly ritual, sharing details of her daily life and explaining the difficult time the COVID-19 shutdown was causing for everyone.
“Only thing open is grocery stores. Sometimes it’s so hard to find things. We all have to wear masks,” Kathy read from one of her many letters.
Her mom even wrote back in a card saying, “Dear Kathy, feeling fine and thinking of you, every day.”
An unexpected turn
All seemed to be going well, but a few months later in June, Snow had an unexpected turn. Not COVID-19, but a fall out of bed sent Snow to the emergency room.
Kathy rushed to the hospital - the first time she had seen her mother in person in four months.
“She didn’t know who I was. It broke my heart.”
Snow died a few days later, just shy of her 94th birthday.
After Kathy’s mom passed away, she picked up a box of her belongings - an angel statue, some photographs, bracelets, and at the bottom, something that took her breath away - the letters she wrote to her mom.
When she took a closer look, she was shocked.
“My Mother’s Day card. Never opened!”
Almost two-thirds of all the cards and letters she sent were never opened.
“I just couldn’t believe it. I was in total shock. She must have thought I abandoned her,” Kathy said, choking up in disbelief.
She was crushed and couldn’t understand how this could happen.
“How could you not read these letters to my mom? Where was the social director? Where was the nursing staff? Where were the nurses?” she said. “How cruel. How cruel.”
Trying to get answers
Kathy said her repeated calls to the facility for some explanation or even an apology went unanswered.
“There’s no excuse. There has to be accountability for this action,” she said in frustration.
11 Investigates contacted Waters of Wexford. We were directed to their corporate office in Minnesota.
The company’s marketing director and regional vice president called back. They declined an on-camera interview, but answered some questions over the phone.
When asked if it was acceptable that some of the cards and letters weren’t opened and read to Snow, their marketing director, Lisa Bien-Sinz, responded.
“I think our team did a good job of reading many of the letters that came,” Bien-Sinz said.
When asked if there was any justification for not reading all the letters, Bien-Sinz said, “Our goal was to ensure Ms. Snow received as much of the communication as she needed.”
After 11 Investigates contacted Waters of Wexford, Kathy said someone did finally call her back. She says Vice President of Operations Heidi Elliot told her they did read her mom letters, but had no explanation for why so many were left unopened.
“They apologized, but it didn’t seem sincere,” she said.
Staying connected vital
Just how many letters does a 93-year old mom need from her daughter. It’s hard to put a number on that; but experts say given the extreme isolation created by COVID-19, it’s more important than ever for long term care facilities to do everything they can to keep families connected.
Long-term care ombudsman Kim Shetler was surprised to hear the facility did not read all the letters and cards to Kathy’s mom.
“Heartbreaking. Heartbreaking,” she said choking up. “I know I would want them to do that for me. So, I think it’s very important and sad when those things don’t happen; and it makes you question why.”
Shetler says isolation is causing a tangible decline in the emotional and physical condition of patients. She says it is imperative for long-term care facilities take a step back and prioritize keeping residents connected to their families.
“Those things are equally important to physical care. That’s part of keeping that person’s emotional well-being at the forefront,” Shetler explained.
If you have a loved one in a long-term care facility and are having a hard time getting updates about or talking with them, Shetler says the Pennsylvania Long-Term Care Ombudsman program can help. Her office has helped dozens of families negotiate visitation and contact for families since the coronavirus outbreak began.
You can contact the ombudsman program directly at 717-783-8975 or LTCfirstname.lastname@example.org.
Search for peace
It’s been five months since Kathy’s mom passed away, and her daughter still struggles to understand.
“There’s no reason why they couldn’t open my letters. It’s so sad,” she said, looking at one of the cards she had sent, with a picture of roses on the front. “Roses. Mum, loved roses.”
In a search for peace, Kathy clipped some roses from her garden and took them to her mom’s final place of rest.
“I want her to hear my letters. I need her to hear my letters,” she said.
On a windy, gray afternoon, sitting by Janice Snow’s grave, one by one, Kathy tearfully shared all the special cards and letters her mom was never read.
“You’re the best mum ever, I love you so much. Your daughter, Kathy.”