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Separated by the pandemic part 4: Facilities still locked down

Steve Espling of New Gloucester, a chaplain with Beacon Hospice, checks in with a patient remotely. He is presently not allowed inside hospice buildings, in order to keep patients safe from infection during the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo by Nathan Tsukroff, PortraitEFX)

The following story is the fourth of several interviews being done by Nathan Tsukroff of PortraitEFX to capture the effects of this pandemic on the people of Maine. 

Maine is starting to open up again.

Well, most of Maine is starting to open. But not hospitals, and not nursing homes, and not assisted living homes like The Sarah Frye Home on Washington Street North in Auburn. 

Not this week. And maybe not next week. In fact, MaryAnn Guenette, Activities Director, said last week she isn’t sure when The Sarah Frye Home will be allowing family members and guests to enter the facility. They plan to maintain social-distancing protocols for a little while after the State of Maine lifts restrictions, to ensure patients will not have a chance of infection from the Covid-19 coronavirus.

Self-quarantined since the beginning of March, the home currently is providing care for 34 people, with room for two more. And none of the 34 residents have been allowed to be with their family and loved ones in person. The only connections have been through windows, glass doors, or by telephone and over the internet.

Healthcare facilities across southern Maine have put these strict protocols in place to preserve the health and well-being of their residents and patients. And as expected, this has not been easy for those residents and patients.

“We used to go out and do a lot of trips, and we’re unable to do that at this time,” Guenette said. “We used to do a lot of activities . . . go out to eat, go out to picnics, go shopping.”

Now, “We’re unable to do group activities, so I’m doing individual activities in their rooms, and that’s kind of difficult. You’ve got to be very creative to do that, because they all love their Bingo!” she said. “But I did find a creative way to do their Bingo, and they’re enjoying it.”

In the past, staff would go to a local coffee shop for take-out coffee or milkshakes for the residents, Guenette said. With the quarantine, “We’ve been making them here once a week for them instead, so they’re really enjoying that. [Wednesdays are now] Milkshake and Coffee Days, so they get their iced-coffee and milkshakes they used to order,” she said, “but of course, now, it doesn’t cost them anything, so it’s even better for them.”

Residents can’t have visitors, so they’ve been visiting with family or friends through closed windows, talking over the telephone. The facility purchased a tablet for residents to use for video chats with their family members, “so they can see them and talk to them. So that’s been nice too,” Guenette said.

Staff at The Sarah Frye Home are allowed to touch the residents to help them with their care, although they stay masked at all times. The residents themselves wear masks when outside of their rooms as they socialize with other residents. 

There have been no incidents of infection at the facility for either residents or staff, Guenette said, and staff members are not visiting with a lot of family or friends when at their own homes, to limit chances for exposure. “Everyone’s like, ‘We can’t wait to get back to normal!’ But we don’t know what normal is, anymore.

Guenette said The Sarah Frye Home staff and facility board will carefully review information from the Maine CDC and other facilities throughout the area as it looks to open its doors again.  

Residents “miss their family members and they can’t wait till we open up again,” She said. While some residents are frustrated with what they feel is a lock-down, other residents know “we’re trying very hard to stay safe, and they’re very thankful for that.” 

Similarly, Beacon Hospice is Auburn is feeling the loss of “personal touch”.

Steve Espling of New Gloucester, an interfaith chaplain with Beacon Hospice in Auburn, said he and the other chaplains have not been allowed to interact with patients in person since the quarantines went into effect. Instead of hand-holding and the personal touching that can be so meaningful to a patient whose death is imminent, Espling and the other chaplains have resorted to phone calls, emails, videos sent over the internet, or conversations by phone through a closed window or door.

Patients are placed into hospice care when their illness or condition indicates they have six months or less to live. This care can be provided in a long-term care facility, a hospital, or at home. Although, some of those patients may improve and “graduate” from hospice care.

Staff in the various facilities have had to take on additional roles to fill in for the missing personal approach by the chaplains.

“When you think of spiritual care, you think of presence. You know, touch can be very important to somebody. Just a gentle touch, maybe a hug, reading a scripture to them in person,” Espling said. “So much is presence, and now presence has been removed.”

Not even allowed to enter the building at a facility, he has been relegated to phone visits, he said. And now some facilities are allowing “window visits”, where he and the patient can at least see each other while they talk over the phone. 

Espling said the hospice philosophy is holistic, so “we’re addressing the needs of the person physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. So, my piece is the spiritual piece, and I don’t come to the patient to share my spirituality with them. I come to the patient and their family members to discover what their spirituality is and encourage them to draw strength from that.” 

He said his focus has shifted more to family members, “because we have more access to family members. We can visit them outside the facility or at their home, if their comfortable. A lot of phone calls [are made] to husbands and wives for support.” 

And the need for chaplains has also expanded to staff members as they deal with hardships brought on by social-distancing, Espling said. “How can we assist them where they are in harm’s way, if you will, wanting to give care.” 

Also, “if someone has a spiritual issue, (staff members) are the ones that the patient sees,” so chaplains do their best to “come alongside them to help, too.”

Chaplains have tried to be creative by recording little video payers, scripture readings, or just “send something to a nurse or an aide that they can play for a patient,” Espling said. Although he can’t play his guitar for patients in person right now, he records short songs for them to enjoy on a smartphone or tablet. “So, we’re trying to be creative to ‘touch’ patients, even though we can’t be there.”

Espling pastored North Deering Alliance Church in Portland, which had a huge population of asylum seekers. His Sunday sermons were translated into multiple languages for the congregation. “Every culture has, of course, traditions when somebody is dying, but the needs of the individual don’t change,” he said. 

“That promise of hospice is that no one needs to die alone. Which, of course, in this environment is difficult,” he said. “But what we hope to do is provide each person with dignity, right up until the last day.”

One Response to “Separated by the pandemic part 4: Facilities still locked down”

  • Phil Andrukaitis:

    Great interview, Steve. You truly represent the best spiritual care Beacon Hospice has to offer to patients and their families. Your creativity and gentle spirit is deeply appreciated by all your co-workers and families you serve. It is a blessing to work alongside with you. Keep up the good work.

Leave a Reply for Phil Andrukaitis


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