Nursing homes work to lift spirits through ‘no-visitor’ rules

Macon Valley Nursing & Rehabilitation Activity Aide Laura Koster (left) enjoys outdoor time with residents Ann Clark (right) and  Kristeen Potts, (back).

Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer

In some areas of the country, restrictions on visitors are being relaxed somewhat with COVID-19 safety precautions till being adhered to. 

Not so in North Carolina. Governor Roy Cooper on July 24 issued an executive order returning regulatory authority for skilled nursing facilities to the Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS). Thus, current restrictions remain in place, meaning, “nursing homes or skilled nursing facilities, including combination skilled nursing/adult care assisted living facilities must continue to restrict visitation of all visitors and non-essential health care personnel, except for certain compassionate care situations, including end-of-life situations. Communal dining and group activities also remain restricted.”

At Macon Valley Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, Lillie Zentmeyer, LRT/CTRS, activity director, said, “Ever since the virus began, and many precautions to keep residents and staff safe were put in place, it has been challenging to come up with activities to keep residents smiling.”

Macon Valley residents are able to go outdoors and get fresh air. 

“We have done lots of work planting in our courtyard garden beds so that residents have something nice to look at when going outside and something to look forward to as our veggies grow,” added Zentmeyer. In the memory care unit, residents were able to watch butterflies grow and hatch from their chrysalis and then experience their release to the outdoors.

A hit with residents is what she calls hallway bingo.

 “We have also played music overhead for all residents to hear, sing, and/or dance to. We have had many holiday decorated carts travel down the hallways handing out goodies to residents, such as root beer floats, coffee and donuts, ice cream, virgin pina coladas, boiled peanuts, popcorn, and much more.”

Not just the main holidays, but daily national holidays or recognition days are focused on as well. 

“We just recently had national peach ice cream day,” said Zentmeyer. 

To keep residents in touch with loved ones, Zentmeyer and other staff members have arranged video chats. 

“One volunteer, who used to come for Bible study every week even reached out and has been talking with some of our residents over FaceTime,” she said.

During the shelter-at-home mandate, Janie Key, a concerned Macon County resident, collected donations of basic tablets for nursing home residents so that they could communicate with family members and friends and watch church services. She said the community greatly supported those efforts. “It was very successful. We were able to collect enough tablets for all of the nursing homes in Macon County.”

The Macon County community at large can continue to support and encourage quarantined nursing and assisted living facility residents by become a pen pal, sending flowers, providing care packages, and more. “We have pen pals that have generously been writing to our residents,” said Zentmeyer, “and the residents that have chosen to participate are enjoying getting new mail and writing back to their pen pal.”

Donations appreciated include large-print word-find books, Readers Digest magazines, large-print devotionals, large-print Bibles, sketch books with colored pencils, smaller puzzles, and notebooks. 

“If community members want to reach out and support residents, they can always contact me by email at,” said Zentmeyer. “Most of all, I think community members could help the most by praying for all our nursing homes and assisted livings during this difficult and unprecedented time.”

Making it real

Ruth Ann LeBlanc, 86, who, with the onset of dementia, became a resident of The Hermitage in Sylva in mid-February after 30 years in her own home. But after a short stay at The Hermitage, LeBlanc was moved to Franklin House so that her daughter, Cynthia Michael, who works full-time, could be five minutes away. Then came the shelter-in-place mandate and no visitors were allowed into Franklin House.

“She’s in there and cannot come out and I can’t go in,” said Michael. “It’s been such a struggle … very hard.” 

At least three times weekly, Michael “window visits” her mother, who has a room on the ground floor. If the window is not cracked a few inches so they can hear one another, they must talk by cell phone. Earlier in the week, Michael said she sat outside in the pouring rain under an umbrella so she could see her mother and her mother could see her – since the visit is something they both look forward to. “If this goes into the winter, I’ll be out there with two winter coats on.”

Michael said it is important that her mother and the other residents are supported, especially during this unprecedented crisis. 

“I bring her magazines, chips, cookies, pop. I gave her a Mrs. Potato Head and an Etch and Sketch. The Mother’s Day parade they did was awesome. The residents sat outside and we drove by with balloons and honked our horns.” 

But most residents have not had a haircut in many months since a hair stylist cannot visit the facility, and Michael pointed out there are many tasks she wants to help her mother with that the “taxed” staff does often does not have time for. 

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Michael. She encouraged people in the community to consider contacting local nursing and assisted-living facilities to learn needs and to see if their residents would appreciate such things as picture books depicting travel, animals, flowers, etc., magazines such as National Geographic, CD players with headphones and oldies or gospel CDs, easy games, and even clothing and socks.  

“Some people didn’t have anyone to visit before [COVID-19] and now they can’t have anyone visit,” she said. “No one wants to be forgotten. I’m ready for this [pandemic] to be over. I really want to get to know the residents and be able to actually visit with my mother.”