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Fabiola Santiago

‘I miss her toothless smiling face.’ Families of elderly lament coronavirus visit ban | Opinion

How long can our viejitos, our precious elderly in assisted living , go without seeing us before they die of heartache?

If the fast-spreading novel coronavirus doesn’t kill them, the pain of our separation might.

And we, their families, are hurting, too.

“I miss her toothless smiling face,” laments Raquel de la Cal, who used to visit her beloved mother, 100-year-old Gabriela Torres, every day at a Miami-Dade assisted living facility.

She hasn’t been able to see bedridden Torres since she went on a vacation to Italy in February.

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When she returned, de la Cal self-quarantined for 14 days despite having no symptoms, eagerly awaiting the morning she would be able to visit her mom, who suffers from end-stage dementia and can’t talk but speaks volumes with her face.

But that same day Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered a lockdown in all the state’s ALFs and nursing homes to prevent the horrific community spread of COVID-19 the nation witnessed in Washington state. At least 31 people have died there from the virus, almost all at the Life Care Center nursing home.

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The DeSantis order: No visitors. No exceptions.

“I was devastated,” de la Cal says. “This viejita of mine doesn’t have much time left.”

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In Florida, coronavirus is confirmed or suspected in 19 people in care facilities.

The visitor ban is necessary but devastating for people who have elderly parents, grandparents and great-grandparents in long-term care facilities. The Florida Health Care Association estimates the number of residents at 71,000, about an 85% occupancy at any given time.

I understand the reason, I understand the need, I totally understand it all, and I agree, but my heart is aching right now to see her, and I pray to God nothing will happen to her before I get the chance to see her,” de la Cal says.

In times of crisis and illness, the one thing we most want to do is embrace our loved ones, comfort them with our love.

In the unprecedented age of the novel coronavirus, it’s the one thing we can’t do.

And it is terrifying.

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All of us who have made the difficult choice of placing a parent in an ALF or nursing home were told by others who went through the experience before us that we needed to be there. Healthcare workers told us the same.

Our loved ones would get better care with our presence and oversight. Our loved ones wouldn’t feel abandoned if we continued visits as if they were in their own homes.

And now, we are called upon to trust blindly, to rely solely on their expertise to handle not only this vulnerable population’s routine care, but this crisis. It’s not easy to let go, not even when you’ve come to trust and appreciate the people who care for them.

“The most difficult decision of my life was putting her in a home,” de la Cal says. “She lived with me 30 some years until she developed severe dementia and started having difficulty walking.”

But staying away is what saves lives.

The person who transmitted the virus to the elderly in Washington had been infected in Italy and didn’t know it.

In Broward County, we’ve already had three assisted living facility deaths. One tested positive and the other two negative for COVID-19.

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The cluster of deaths was a reminder of why we have a ban on visitors during a pandemic that has proven to be most deadly for the elderly. People over 65 are at higher risk of developing complications from COVID-19, the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention says.

De la Cal already went through a scare a few days ago.

She was notified that Torres had developed a fever and a cough and was being treated with an antibiotic.

Some coughing is normal for a bed-bound person, but a fever isn’t.

She prepared for the worst, knowing what she had heard in Italy first-hand about the elderly “being left to die.” Italy’s coronavirus death toll has now surpassed China’s.

She found out there is an exemption to the ban for visiting the dying and this gave her some comfort. The thought of her mother dying alone isn’t one she wants to contemplate.

But the medication worked.

“It was hell on wheels, but she’s smiling again.

“That face,” she says, “made my day on a daily basis.”

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