Covid Pandemic Forces Families to Rethink Nursing Home Care


Even with vaccines, many older people and their relatives are weighing how to manage at-home care for those who can no longer live independently.

Diane Nixon, 86, lives in an efficiency apartment in her daughter Heidi Dolan’s house in suburban Pittsburgh.

Diane Nixon, 86, lives in an efficiency apartment in her daughter Heidi Dolan’s house in suburban Pittsburgh.Credit…Kristian Thacker for The New York Times

Reed Abelson

May 6, 2021Updated 11:21 a.m. ET

At 86, Diane Nixon, living in an apartment at the back of a daughter’s house, no longer drives and has trouble getting around.

When her health worsened last year before the coronavirus pandemic, she and all four of her daughters talked about whether a nursing home would be the next step. She worried that she had become a burden to her children.

“She was very adamant about not wanting her daughters to be caregivers,” said Jill Cooper, one of her daughters, who lives nearby in the Pittsburgh area.

But as infections began to tear through nursing homes across the country, killing tens of thousands of residents last year, Ms. Nixon and her family realized a group home was no longer a viable choice. Especially after most of them barred visitors to help contain outbreaks.

“Not to be able to see her was not an option for us,” Ms. Cooper said, so the family contacted a local home health agency to hire someone to help her during the day.

“It made us look at an alternative that we might not have looked at as hard,” she said.

The pandemic’s toll on nursing homes drove occupancy down significantly — not just from the 132,000 deaths but also because of a decline in admissions. The 14,000 skilled nursing facilities in the United States now have on average a vacancy rate of slightly more than 25 percent, according to figures from the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care.

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