AUSTIN (KXAN) — Frieda Sauls used to visit her father at his skilled nursing facility in Hutto as often as she could.
Worried about the quality of care he was receiving, she had a camera installed in his room long before COVID-19 was of concern. Since the pandemic forced facilities to restrict visitors, Sauls now checks in on her father through the live stream every day.
“I’ve noticed him not getting his medicine some days, not having his blood sugar checked,” she said. “It’s just heartbreaking to see that.”
Patti Kessmann said she felt the same loss when her sister’s Texas City facility closed their doors to family visits. Especially after her sister was diagnosed with COVID-19, she said technology was the only thing keeping them connected — but not without difficulty.
“Somebody from the facility had to be there holding it while I was trying to talk with her,” Kessmann said of phone calls or FaceTime video calls.
Her sister has tremors in her hands, making it difficult to hold a device. Plus, Kessmann said her sister has a hard time hearing during these conversations.
Under new rules released last month by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, some long-term care residents are allowed to have visitors. However, in order to qualify, a home must meet several conditions and be approved by the state.
In order to qualify, a facility cannot report any positive COVID-19 cases among staff in the last 14 days or any active cases among residents. They also must have adequate staffing and be testing staff weekly.
“Very few homes will meet all those criteria,” one family member told KXAN Investigator Avery Travis at a demonstration at the State Capitol building in August.
Brian Lee, Executive Director of Families for Better Care, said that’s why virtual visits are becoming even more important for residents who can get access to certain kinds of “smart” technology.
“There are still limitations on visitations. Even if facilities meet all the criteria to open up tomorrow, folks are still going to be meeting outside,” Lee said. “You actually can’t see what’s happening in a residents room, what’s happening with their daily care. These devices will allow that.”
His organization is donating Amazon Echo Show 5 devices to residents in long-term care for free. They started the Echoes for Elders campaign after nursing homes and assisted living facilities were closed to visitors in March.
“A lot of residents are still just living in their rooms,” he said. “This device opens the window into the universe of the resident.”
He noted that the technology is hands-free for the residents, allowing families to initiate the call.
“It’s the residents’ family on the outside that can directly, immediately open a connection… just through a simple voice command,” he explained.
He said they’ve given out more than 100 devices to families nationwide — several dozen in Texas alone. Still, he said they have the capacity to give thousands more of these devices away.
Kessmann applied for a device through the program. Now, it sits next to her sister’s bed in the nursing home, making it easy when Kessman calls.
“It’s like she thinks I’m there almost, you know?” she described. “I sat down and read the paper to her.”
In May, the state 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.
As of August 11, HHSC had approved 469 facilities for communication technology devices, with a total price tag of $1.3 million so far. The program will be funded through Civil Money Penalties, which is the money collected when nursing homes are fined for being out of compliance with federal regulations. 119 facilities still had their applications pending.
Still, Lee encourages residents and families to apply for the Echoes for Elders program, to ensure they get their own, personal device.
“When facilities buy them, they are shared among the residents. They are passed around,” he said.
To apply for a device through the Families for Better Care program, click here.
Frieda Sauls didn’t get her camera through the Echoes for Elders program, but she said it’s a wonderful resource.
“I think everybody should have a camera in their loved one’s rooms. I really do,” she said.
Texas law mandates that families notify and work with facilities to install any type of recording equipment in a resident’s room. Families must cover any costs associated with the device. The law also requires the consent of any roommate before installation and calls for a sign to be posted alerting people to the presence of the device.