Since the number of COVID-19 cases at North Carolina nursing homes started surging this month, Nancy Ruffner's phone has been buzzing constantly.
Ruffner runs Navigate NC, helping adult children navigate the complex world of long-term care.
"If you have not already, you need to establish communication with the staff," Ruffner advised. "(My clients) are wondering, 'do I leave my loved one there. Do I move my loved one? I can't get in touch with anybody. How do I know what's going on? What can I do?'"
First thing to do, Ruffner says, is talk to a real person. She digs to find a backdoor number to a care facility when her clients can't get around a nursing home's automated system.
"(Clients) will call at night, during the day and on the weekend, and still get the automated attendant. And it's time's like that that you realize that you need a direct number to the director or your resident care coordinator, the person on that unit. You need a way to talk to them," Ruffner said.
And when you finally get a human being on the phone, Ruffner said the first thing you should say is, "Thank-you for what you're doing. I'm sorry to be part of the noise that's trying to get in to you. But I need a clear line of communication about my client or loved one."
An outbreak at a facility that a family member may have placed their loved one in can trigger huge feelings of guilt -- wondering if you're doing all you can to protect them.
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Ruffner's advice take a deep breath. Before rushing to get your loved one out of there, consider whether you can provide the care your loved one needs:
"The loved one may not be aware of all that's required in the care of their loved one. To consider bringing them home is a huge challenge and you need to know what you're looking at if you do that," Ruffner said.
Medicare.gov can be a valuable resource to research the nursing home your loved one may be in. There's ratings for every facility. Knowing how the facility rates in care during normal times can be a predictor of how it holds up in a crisis like COVID-19.