AUSTIN (KXAN) — Brenda Blackshear wiped away tears, describing her aunt as kind and loving.

Her “auntie” is in a nursing home in Austin, but Blackshear said she hasn’t talked to her in weeks –since family were banned from from visiting senior living facilities in mid-March.

“It hurts, and I need to hear her voice,” she said. “I laid in bed for a whole week, not even wanting to get up, because I haven’t heard from my auntie.”

Brenda Blackshear said she’s struggled to get to talk to her aunt in an Austin nursing home. (KXAN Photo/Avery Travis)

She said when she calls, she’s transferred to someone who doesn’t pick up. Sometimes, she’s told her aunt is asleep or busy, and they’ll call her back.

Blackshear said she tried to call on Mother’s Day but wasn’t “ever able to get through.”

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), along with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, have guidelines that urge facilities to provide virtual visitations or phone “visits.”

“But there’s no requirement as to how often,” the Texas Long-Term Care Ombudsman Patty Ducayet said.

Her office has heard heard several reports of family members frustrated by the lack of access to their loved ones.

“Nursing facilities are required to have a resident phone available, but that’s a shared phone and in these days, that’s going to be a real challenge,” she said, expanding on the difficulty of scheduling times for calls and keeping that phone disinfected.

She said some residents have personal phones, even smart phones, but many don’t.

On Wednesday, Governor Greg Abbott and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission announced $3.6 million in funding for facilities to buy tablets, webcams and headphones, so nursing home residents can connect with their families during the pandemic.

“We want facilities to know this option can help connect residents to their loved ones virtually, while still protecting everyone’s health and safety,”  said David Kostroun, deputy executive commissioner for HHSC’s Regulatory Services Division.

Facilities have to apply through Health and Human Services, but they could get up to $3,000 dollars to purchase these devices.

According to HHS, “Devices should be shared among residents, with a ratio of one device per seven-to-10 residents. Applications or requests for exceptions will be considered in certain circumstances, such as in a facility with a high number of residents. Facilities will not be permitted to purchase personal devices for any resident. Devices also should not be shared between COVID-19 positive (or suspected) and other residents (COVID-19 negative or observation status). Additionally, devices must be cleaned and disinfected between every use by a resident.”

“These devices aren’t that sophisticated, and you don’t need one for every resident to make it work,” said Amanda Frederickson with AARP Texas.

She’s heard of facilities investing in one tablet and scheduling time for each resident to have a video call. Then, a designated employee would help the residents make those calls, disinfecting between each use.

AARP has been advocating for more alternatives for in-person visits, like this, as well as updated guidelines from CMS. They also urged the federal agency to assign staff members as specific contacts for families.

Frederickson emphasized the importance of video calls for patients in memory care.

“If you think about the high proportion of the nursing home population that has some degree of dementia — a phone call may not really connect with them in the same way as seeing the person they are talking too,” she said.

She added that isolation and depression can have a direct impact on a resident’s diet, health and overall immune system.

“It may feel like it is above and beyond for the facilities, but it can be really crucial for the health and well-being of those residents,” Frederickson said.

The team at Buckner Villas designated an employee to help schedule and facilitate these “virtual visits” in their community.

“Having visits with family and friends was the thing they missed the most,” Buckner Villas Director of Marketing and Sales Paul Clark.

Buckner Retirement Services surveyed their 140 residents, finding that most of them still utilized phone calls to stay connected. Texting and emails are also favorites.

Their survey found 55% of residents had not used video calling technology before the pandemic, but 52% said they’d continue using video calls, even after the homes are reopened.

“I think it will make the lines of communication more varied for residents and their families, to jump on a quick call,” Clark said. “Those lines of communication will make it easier for everyone involved.”

He said that after a bit of help from staff getting set up, many of their residents are utilizing technology like FaceTime, Skype and Zoom on their own.

For Brenda Blackshear, who’s aunt lives in a different facility, she said any type of contact would help.

“It’d mean the world, to hear her voice today,” she said.

If you have a concern for you or your loved one in a long-term care facility, call the Office of the Long-Term Care Ombudsman at (800) 252-2412, or get more details here.