Weeks that have turned into months of pandemic-related isolation, in some cases more restrictive than others, have weighed heavy on the minds and hearts of many.
Some, including Jim Thompson of West Plains, are wondering if strict preventative measures being taken now, particularly in the case of nursing home residents like his wife Aggie, are taking too high a toll on mental health.
After restrictions on contact were put into place at Aggie’s care facility to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, and seeing the effect it has had on her well-being, Thompson has begun an appeal to lawmakers and public health administrators to consider the point at which measures to prevent illness could be worse than the illness itself.
A warm hug, peck on the cheek, reassuring pat on the back or squeeze of the hand from a family member, friend or spouse has been proven to reduce stress. The beneficial emotional and physical effects of positive touch have been shown in academic and medical studies documenting its link to the release of brain chemicals that contribute to emotional and physical well-being, the strengthening of trust in relationships -- even a higher tolerance for pain.
On the other hand, being deprived of that touch can create emotional distress or intensify feelings of depression, anxiety or other mental illnesses that are already present, research has shown.
That is perhaps nowhere more true right now than in residential care facilities, where residents already separated from loved ones out of necessity are being forced to do without direct physical contact from friends and family, and often without communication that isn’t separated by a physical barrier.
MEET THE THOMPSONS
Aggie Thompson has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) for 40 years, an autoimmune disorder that causes lesions in the brain that can affect range of motion, mobility, muscle strength and mental clarity. Often, MS patients suffer from fatigue, pain and depression, especially if their condition progresses to the point they lose physical independence and the ability to participate in activities and hobbies they enjoy.
Stressful situations are likely to exacerbate MS and contribute to the worsening of symptoms.
There is no cure for multiple sclerosis, but some treatments help stop or slow the advancement of symptoms. Aggie’s diagnosis came at a time when there were few effective treatments to help ward off disease progression.
Jim eventually took an early retirement and cared for her in their home for 19 years, her mobility worsening, until he got to an age where he risked a disabling back injury to himself while lifting her. Having a nurse provide care at their home wasn’t an option for the Thompsons.
The decision to find a care facility for her was clearly not an easy one for him and the last two months have been particularly hard on him. He gets emotional talking about it today, his voice trembling.
“If I could still take care of her I would, and she knows that,” he says.
The two will be married 55 years in November.
QUALITY OF LIFE
Jim has no complaint about her quality of care over the last five years, first at West Vue Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, then at one of the West Vue Green House Homes, set up for residents who need a measure of daily care and therapy but still have some independence.
Aggie lives with a group of 10 residents who help prepare meals as their ability allows and are encouraged to eat and socialize like family. She has assistance with bathing and physical rehabilitation, as well as therapy to keep her immobile legs flexible.
Before COVID-19 restrictions were put in place, Jim was at Aggie’s facility for two to three hours a day almost every day, helping prepare the lunch meal, eating with her and helping clean up after.
Hugging and kissing each other and holding hands are things the couple never took for granted -- even more so now that their only contact since March 13 has been through a screened porch or by phone, looking at each other through a glass window.
Aggie’s admittance to the hospital, prompted by urgent medical needs near the end of April and about the first week of May, further worsened her emotional state. Stricter quarantine measures had to be taken around her hospitalization and subsequent doctor visits. The only option was to increase medications.
Jim understands the risks and the need to protect the other residents in care facilities, but also can’t help questioning the impact on quality of life for Aggie and other families like theirs in the meantime. He would like to see a compromise found for smaller facilities.
FIGHTING FOR HIS WIFE
In a letter written as a plea for a solution, after he had not had physical contact with Aggie for 65 days and counting, facing weeks of continuing uncertainty surrounding pandemic restrictions, he wrote: “The state hasn’t said what change would come June 1, 2020. I’m afraid they will still not allow anyone in because of contracting the virus, so I don’t want to sit around and wait."
He acknowledges in his letter that larger facilities have a greater chance of being caught off guard if they were allowed to open to the public. But the smaller Green House Homes at West Vue, set up so differently from those facilities, should not have to abide by the same rules, he says.
"The public needs to know that these residents are important and need to be with their loved ones. I’m hoping this will draw attention, and maybe the state will make some changes now to cover the future," he writes. “Many may say that I’m looking at this one-sided; I’m not. I learned a long time ago to try and see both sides of the issue and remember doing that in high school debate. I will say this; nothing is more important than my wife and her well-being, and I will fight for her till my dying breath.”