The crushing isolation of nursing homes during the pandemic

Genny Lutzel holds a photograph of her mother Paula Spangler, 80, outside her home in Rockwall on Aug. 6, 2020. Lutzel hasn't been allowed to touch her mother, who lives in a nursing home and suffers from Alzheimer's, since March due to COVID-19.                    Credit: Ben Torres for The Texas Tribune
Genny Lutzel holds a photograph of her mother Paula Spangler, 80, outside her home in Rockwall on Aug. 6, 2020. Lutzel hasn't been allowed to touch her mother, who lives in a nursing home and suffers from Alzheimer's, since March due to COVID-19. Credit: Ben Torres for The Texas Tribune

After 70 years of marriage, the coronavirus tore Margie and Werner Stalbaum apart. But Margie, who was positive for COVID-19, wasn’t the one who died. It was Werner, of natural causes — and maybe of loneliness.

In early June, when 87-year-old Margie tested positive for the virus in the Cedar Park nursing home where they lived together, she was transferred to a different facility in nearby Round Rock to be isolated.

When their granddaughter Serena Bumpus visited Werner during that period, she talked to him through a window. Werner, who was 88 years old with dementia, would point at his wife’s empty bed, looking as if he didn’t know what was going on.

“Part of me wonders, and the rest of my family wonders, did he think she had already passed?” said Bumpus, who is a nurse. “And he just thought, ‘It’s time for me to go be with her.’”

The coronavirus pandemic has been a constant and precarious balancing act between limiting the spread of the virus and the need for life to go on. In few places has this balance been more delicate than in long-term care facilities, where elderly and medically fragile residents have been deprived of visits from loved ones for almost five months.

For some families, that wait is ending as the state rolls out new rules to allow visitation again in certain nursing homes and assisted living facilities, but it remains unclear how many facilities can — or will — start allowing visits. And some families say the damage to their loved ones from prolonged isolation has already been done.

As the pandemic reached the U.S. — and began ravaging nursing homes soon after — most states with coronavirus outbreaks closed visitation at long-term care facilities. Recently, some states have begun allowing visitors again as the COVID-19 curve flattened.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott shut down visitation in mid-March. That order remained in effect for 145 days until Aug. 6, when the state eased restrictions for facilities that don’t have any active COVID-19 cases among residents or confirmed cases among staff in the last two weeks.