SALEM, Ore — Many people in Oregon's long-term care facilities now have expanded options for visitors.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, care facilities have not been able to allow visits. However, new guidelines this week from the Oregon Department of Human Services allow limited outdoor visitation if safety measures are taken.
Carol Biskupic Knight is a teacher in Beaverton. Her husband is in residential memory care.
"It's very difficult for my husband and our situation," she said.
John Knight was diagnosed with early-onset dementia at age 57. He moved into a memory care facility last March.
Carol has been visiting him, separated by a gate at the facility. She counts herself lucky John can also leave the facility with her for occasional appointments.
She said the newly loosened restrictions are a step in the right direction.
"[But] it is still very restrictive," she said.
"You have to protect yourself, as well as the people you're visiting," said Matt Ryan, general manager of The Ackerly at Timberland in Portland.
Long-term care and independent living facilities like his must submit safety plans for outdoor visits to the state. Then, facilities must screen visitors' health, require face masks, limit guests to small groups and have designated space outside.
Ann McQueen from the Office of Aging and People with Disabilities within the Oregon Dept. of Human Services said social interaction is critical.
"Just seeing someone in person is different than seeing them on Zoom -- especially for someone with dementia," McQueen said.
McQueen explained the summer weather makes these visits viable outside, by reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission to vulnerable seniors.
The vetting process for visitors can help with contact tracing if an outbreak occurs.
"At the front desk, [we] take your temperature, and you fill out a document to explain where you've been and who you are," Ryan said.
"Really think carefully about whether you should be going into one of those settings," McQueen advised.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Carol Biskupic Knight has been isolating to reduce the risk of exposing her husband to the virus. She's concerned about potentially returning to the classroom in fall and increasing that risk.
While she said the newly allowed outdoor visits are a welcome change, they're missing a key component for memory care patients.
"No reaching out, no hugging," she said.
She explained senses such as touch are important for triggering memories of loved ones. Not being able to reach across the table and hold her husband's hand can be confusing and difficult.
"My hope is that I could be in the room just with him...or [that we can] walk in the garden. That's not even an option right now," she said.
Biskupic Knight, McQueen, and Ryan all agreed community-wide prevention is crucial toward maintaining these types of visits.
If a facility has a staff member or resident test positive for COVID-19, all visits have to stop until everyone is in the clear.
"Everybody's in this together and wants to do the right thing to make sure that everyone stays as safe as possible," Ryan said.
"If we don't get this under control, it is going to just be longer and longer," Biskupic Knight said.