This week the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) finally updated its nursing home guidelines to loosen up visitation restrictions, which for nearly a year have isolated older, disabled Americans and cut them off from the warmth of human love. I have been quite critical of the damaging effects of these policies on the mental health of both long-term care residents and their visitors, and had recently called for an immediate re-opening of the doors for visitation.
“We acknowledge the toll that separation and isolation has taken. We also acknowledge that there is no substitute for physical contact, such as the warm embrace between a resident and their loved one. Therefore, if the resident is fully vaccinated, they can choose to have close contact (including touch) with their visitor while wearing a well-fitting facemask,” said the CMS fact sheet.
In other words, hug, but don’t kiss.
Who gave the federal government authority to regulate how, for example, a daughter expresses her love for her fully-vaccinated mother? After denying family members visitation rights, after separating spouses in the hour of death in hospitals and long-term care facilities for most of 2020, CMS now is going to proscribe a kiss on the cheek?
The emotional, physical and spiritual damage lockdowns of care facilities has had is immeasurable – on the caregiver and cared-for alike. This was entirely foreseeable and preventable. Cutting people off from companionship is always destructive. Mother Teresa’s observation from decades ago applies to the situation of many elders after this last year of visitation restrictions. “People are suffering from terrible loneliness, terrible despair…feeling unwanted, feeling helpless, feeling hopeless. They have forgotten how to smile, they have forgot the beauty of the human touch. They are forgetting what is human love. They need someone who will understand and respect them.”
Government Can’t Love
The government can’t respect, understand and love. Not even the best of public servants can do this in their civil service jobs, either. I noted yesterday a Stanford doctor’s criticism of Dr. Anthony Fauci’s approach to the COVID crisis for failing to incorporate the collateral social harm (depression and suicide, divorce rate spikes, lost school years, delayed or foregone medical care causing late diagnosis and unnecessary death, untreated illnesses, small business closures and social displacement, and so on) in his analysis and recommendations to presidents Trump and Biden. Dr. Fauci deserves credit and gratitude for the thankless job he has had this last year. American should not be surprised, however, by the bias of his analysis and proposed solutions. An infectious disease expert will always recommend measures that suppress the spread of germs and the risk of death, even ones marginally efficacious. But as the Wall Street Journal noted today, there are other pressing considerations.
During this last year, it was necessary to take special precautions in nursing homes, particularly since nearly half of the reported 530,000 COVID deaths occurred in such care institutions. For some long-term care, hospital and rehab facilities, that translated into a general prohibition on visitation. Perhaps one reason these operators embraced strict visitation measures in the first place was the fear of wrongful death lawsuits. The State of Florida’s legislature is currently debating whether liability protections should be granted to some of these businesses who fear that an opening of their doors will invite not just visitors, but litigation. That is a fair question, and Florida’s response is worth watching.
What is unquestionable is our country’s need to reach out to our seniors, affirm their God-given dignity, and restore the “beauty of human touch” to their lives. As the great 17th century poet John Donne wrote, “Solitude goes against the natural order, for all of God’s actions manifest a love of community.” So should ours.