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Maria Castellano canceled her mother’s physical therapy appointment Tuesday at a Westchester care center. While the therapy is important, Castellano said, protecting the 88-year-old from the coronavirus, which causes a respiratory illness that preys on elders, is more critical.
Castellano’s mother, Aurelia Castellano, does physical therapy a couple of days each week with plastic balls and a stationary bike. But her mother has told her they don’t sanitize the equipment between use.
“I do not feel comfortable at all that she is going there,” Maria Castellano said. “They don’t do that much of a cleaning for the older people.”
So she canceled her mother’s Thursday and Friday appointments too.
Public health administrators have expressed their greatest concern for nursing home residents: In Washington, 23 of the state’s 30 coronavirus deaths have been linked to a single nursing home. On Wednesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order restricting visitation at Florida nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
But the global pandemic is exacting other changes, both subtle and severe, among South Florida elders, many of whom depend upon health and service programs for daily care and socialization.
Across South Florida, frail and compromised elders gather for such things as physical and occupational therapy, exercise and cooking classes, computer workshops and other forms of entertainment. For some, the programs are a lifeline, their only opportunity to interact with others, exercise their minds and bodies — or even just leave the house.
Maria Castellano, 70, has lived with her mother since the older woman fell while using her walker last year. She says she sanitizes her mother’s belongings regularly with alcohol and wipes. But she worries about those who don’t have a caregiver — and about conditions outside the women’s home.
“If we don’t protect them, it’s hard for a lot of these people [to protect themselves],” she said.
To date, health regulators have identified only one nursing home or ALF where the COVID-19 virus has spread. Health administrators have linked the deaths of 23 people to the Life Care Center nursing home in Kirkland, Wash. Another 64 people at LIfe Care, employees of the home, have shown symptoms of the disease, which was declared a pandemic this week by the World Health Organization.
Florida health administrators have identified 27 Florida residents known to have contracted the coronavirus, including seven from Broward County, and one from Miami-Dade — a new case was announced midday Thursday from Altamonte Springs. Two Florida residents have died from the disease, the health department said. As health administrators work to contain the virus’ spread, senior centers are a particular source of concern.
Miami-Dade County holds 34 licensed rehabilitation centers. But with one of the highest concentrations of elders in the country, the region also supports 165 licensed adult day care centers and 830 assisted living facilities, according to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration.
Resident health and safety should be the top priorities of any senior facility, said Nick Van Der Linden, a spokesman for Leading Age Florida, an industry group that represents more than 500 senior nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and assisted living facilities in Florida — with more than 80,000 clients.
Van Der Linden said the organization is making sure its member facilities follow the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state guidelines for screening visitors who have traveled overseas or show symptoms. The protocols include taking the temperature of all residents and staff daily, and then sending home those employees who have been exposed to the virus or show symptoms.
Some of Leading Age’s facilities have been “extremely proactive,” and began following these protocols as early as two weeks ago, he said.
“The number one goal is preventing the virus from entering the community and ensuring the health of our residents,” he said.
Letty Hidalgo-Gato lives in South Miami and goes to a therapy center to treat the pain in her right leg, which cannot be alleviated with surgery due to her age.
“I went on Monday, and I said ‘Oh my God, they aren’t doing anything,’ ” to ensure patients are protected from the spread of infection, she said.
Hidalgo-Gato said she had planned to stay away from the facility — at least for the time being — unless she could feel more confident that patients are safe from possible contagion. The 83-year-old is disappointed that she may have to stay home: She loves the treatment. And it helps ease the pain she feels from the bones in her leg grinding together.
“If I don’t go, it will negatively impact me,” she said.
Hidalgo-Gato decided to go back again Thursday, and found that the center now had disinfectant available and used it to wipe down her equipment when she asked — though she remarked, “I think that if you do not ask, they will not do it.”
Nursing home residents are especially vulnerable. Feds are cutting back on inspections
Hidalgo-Gato is also concerned about conditions at her condo at Metro South Senior Apartments in South Miami. While managers have posted signs at the condo’s entrance warning residents to wash their hands, and distributed informational packets, they haven’t provided hand sanitizer or disinfectant.
“People are so afraid of having the coronavirus,” said Susan Soto, another of the building’s residents.
The building’s management said it is responding to concerns as they arise.
“While maintenance requests are still available, we will first confirm if anyone is sick in the apartment before completing the request,” a notice in the lobby reads. “Specific resident requests can be accommodated on a case-by-case basis.”
Residents can also fill out a form with any issues they’re having, said Kristin Nalsan, regional property manager for Pinnacle, the company that runs Metro South Senior Apartments.
Soto, who is 76, has had complications since a heart attack years ago. So when she first heard the disease was spreading, she paid extra attention to it.
“The cleanliness of the building leaves a lot to be desired,” Soto said.
Now, when Soto ventures downstairs in the elevator, she pulls her sleeve up over her hand to not make contact.
“Here in this building I don’t want to touch anything,” Castellano said.
The building on Sunset Drive has a community kitchen, foyer, patio, community room and a gym. Occasionally a maintenance worker is brought in to clean the carpets, but other than that, Castellano said, the residents do all the cleaning themselves.
“Inside of this building, there’s no care for coronavirus at all, and this building is composed of people 65 or older, so they should have somebody here cleaning,” Maria Castellano said.
As fears of COVID-19 have spread, Maria Castellano has discouraged her mother from leaving the apartment, and Aurelia Castellano has not been outside for more than a week.
“I’m not moving her from here at all,” Maria Castellano said.
Aurelia Castellano normally paces the halls of her building every day, passing through a community kitchen and onto an outdoor patio. She loves to spend time with her neighbors, or to sit outside and get some sun.
“I had to stop that, too, because, you know, this building’s so dirty,” her daughter said. “I don’t want her to do anything outside the house.”
“She told me yesterday that walking makes her feel so good,” Castellano said. For now, Aurelia Castellano is stuck pacing her apartment throughout the day, Maria Castellano said. She walks in between the two rooms over and over.
It might be a while until Aurelia Castellano laces her sneakers again. And she’s very upset about it, her daughter said.
She told her daughter, “Oh wow, this is the last thing we need right now.”
Florida has a 24/7 hotline set up for people who think they might be suffering from COVID-19. The phone number is 866-779-6121, or you can email [email protected]