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A plea for video calls, a lifeline to those living and dying in nursing homes

At The Falls at Cordingly Dam, an assisted living facility, staff arranged for resident Judith Rosen to have the Friday night candle lighting and prayers over challah to mark the start of Shabbat or Sabbath. She was joined by her son Daniel Rosen and Shayla McDermott, the music therapist, brought the candles.
At The Falls at Cordingly Dam, an assisted living facility, staff arranged for resident Judith Rosen to have the Friday night candle lighting and prayers over challah to mark the start of Shabbat or Sabbath. She was joined by her son Daniel Rosen and Shayla McDermott, the music therapist, brought the candles.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

When Marie MacDonald was dying from the coronavirus in April, her family could not be by her side. The Norwell nursing home where she lived had stopped allowing visitors, to protect residents from the pandemic, but her five children and eight grandchildren wanted desperately to see her.

As her condition declined, the staff arranged several video calls for the family. And when it was clear she didn’t have much longer, they hoped to connect one last time.

But at a time when many nursing homes are consumed by COVID-19 outbreaks, it took some persistence. MacDonald’s daughter, Madelyn Foster, said workers at Southwood at Norwell Nursing Center told her nobody could set up a FaceTime call that weekend, and the facility had only one iPad. After she couldn’t reach the home’s administrator, she made a frantic call to a state emergency hot line, where a worker agreed to reach out to the facility on her behalf.

On a Sunday, the family got to visit MacDonald from afar, saying their goodbyes and telling her they loved her. She died the next day, at 94.

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“I just wanted her to hear our voices when she took her dying breath, to know we were there,” Foster said. “It was very heartbreaking to all of us this is how it ended.”

With families pleading to connect with their loved ones, nursing homes and assisted living facilities across the state are scrambling to arrange virtual visits through the chaos of an unprecedented crisis.

Southwood’s administrator, Lindsey Starr, said she arranged the last call between MacDonald and her family minutes after she learned Foster had requested it.

“We recognize just how difficult the social isolation requirement is for both residents and family members,” Starr said in a statement. “The Southwood staff has spent countless hours FaceTiming with residents and their family members, putting their health and safety at risk in doing so with COVID-19 positive residents.”

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Recognizing the need for video calls to bring families together, a number of nonprofit organizations, businesses, state officials, and volunteers are working to help facilities meet the demand.

Attorney General Maura Healey and the Massachusetts Senior Care Association said this week they will provide 730 tablets to nursing homes across the state. Tablets were donated by Amazon, Walmart, Teel Technologies, and Acer, while a financial contribution was made by Personable Inc.

“We hope that by seeing your loved ones, it gives you joy, it gives you reassurance, and makes this whole difficult experience a little bit easier,” Healey said in an interview Tuesday.

The initiative was proposed by Megan McLaughlin, a prosecutor in Healey’s office. Her mother-in-law was in a nursing home, unable to see her family as the virus spread, and recently died, Healey said.

Tara Gregorio, president of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association, said nursing home operators are eager to obtain more tablets, and more donations are being sought.

"I think everybody is committed to making sure families and residents are connected personally as much as possible,” she said.

At the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, where 74 residents have died from the virus as of Tuesday, some relatives have found it difficult to reach residents, with calls limited to certain hours.

But in the past week, Brighton Marine, a nonprofit organization that supports veterans, donated 350 iPads to the Soldiers’ Homes in Holyoke and Chelsea to help residents stay in touch with family and friends.

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“Unfortunately, there were situations where the veteran died before they could say goodbye to a loved one," said Tom Lyons, chairman of the board of trustees at the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home and a member of Brighton Marine’s board of directors. “That’s what really broke my heart, that someone who served this nation honorably and proudly was dying alone.”

The organization initially donated 25 iPads to the Chelsea home but expanded its effort after seeing the impact the video calls had on residents who have been isolated since visits were halted in March.

Mikey Murphy-Tapanes said she has been able to FaceTime with her father, Phil Murphy, a couple of times on one of the new iPads since he returned to the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke last week after spending 20 days in the hospital with COVID-19.

“It’s hard because he’s not a tech guy at all," said Murphy-Tapanes, adding that her 78-year-old father needs help to make calls. “He’s like, ‘What is this?’ and I’m like, ‘It’s me. I’m in a computer.'”

When he was in the hospital, they briefly communicated by video, and his face would light up when he saw his children and grandchildren on a screen that nurses rolled into his room, and they played his favorite songs, such as “God Bless America.”

Now the recreation staff and National Guard are helping residents communicate with their families, easing the strain on nursing staff who have been consumed with caring for patients, Murphy-Tapanes said.

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She was relieved to see her father, who seems to be doing better but still needs physical and occupational therapy to help him get back on his feet.

In mid-April, after not being able to visit his mother at a Newton assisted living facility for a month, Daniel Rosen bought a pair of Echo Shows. He asked staff to put one of the Amazon smart speakers in her room at the Falls at Cordingly Dam so they could chat by video.

Their first call “was like meeting someone who had been in jail for five years,” Rosen said. It was a relief to see and hear his mother, Judith, who is 84 and sometimes has difficulty communicating because of Alzheimer’s.

During their daily calls, he reads to her and plays her favorite music or radio stations. The voice-activated calls don’t require staff to initiate them.

Amanda Cillo, a spokeswoman for Benchmark Senior Living, a Waltham company that operates the Falls and a chain of assisted-living facilities across the Northeast, said the Falls also has two tablets available for residents to make video calls.

“We understand the restricted visitation protocols we have put in place to help mitigate the spread of coronavirus can be trying for residents and family members alike," she said.

"While these measures are crucial to protecting the health and safety of our residents and associates, we are employing various methods to maintain the human connections, which are central to our residents’ mental health and well-being.”

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Last week, with the arrival of warmer weather, the Falls started allowing residents and family members to have socially distanced visits outdoors. Rosen said he donned a mask and waited as a staffer, dressed in protective gear, led his mother outside. She, too, wore a mask.

They sat on a bench for the first time in months, just talking. The video calls have been a “communications lifeline,” but they can’t compete with meeting face to face, he said.

“It’s a gift just to sit together in the sunshine and to breathe a little and relax a little," he said. “Just to be together is amazing."


Shelley Murphy can be reached at shelley.murphy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.