When the Hebrew Home at Riverdale shut its doors to visitors March 11, Michael Stoller wondered if he would ever see his 93-year-old mother Renee again.
In an effort to fight the coronavirus pandemic, nursing homes across the state closed their campuses in an effort to protect their elderly residents, nearly all of whom were particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of the virus.
The one exception for family visits was if a resident was in hospice care. Only then could visitors enter the Hebrew Home — fully dressed in personal protective equipment — to say a final goodbye to their loved one.
Zelda Fassler understood the measures the facility had to take to keep her and fellow residents safe. But she also didn’t expect to have to wait months to get a visitor.
“We never dreamt, when it first began, that it would be lasting as long as it is,” Fassler said.
As the months passed, chief operating officer David Pomeranz saw the emotional toll of the isolation on the Hebrew Home’s residents.
“There was a constant theme of ‘is there anything we can do to make something happen?’” Pomeranz said.
Pomeranz and members of the Hebrew Home staff were determined to make in-person visits a reality once again. But with the virus still a concern, they had to get creative.
The end result? Drive-in visits from family members.
Pomeranz was inspired by the technologies used by drive-in movie theaters, and he conceptualized a way where Hebrew Home residents could stay safe but still see their loved ones in person.
Here’s how it works: Visiting families drive up to the home and are provided with a wireless speaker. But instead of listening to a film through the speaker, the visitors get to listen to the voice of their loved one, who they can see in an enclosed vestibule at an appropriate distance away. Each visit lasts 10 minutes.
Once Pomeranz fully developed his idea, he pitched it to the state health department, who gave the final OK for his unique idea.
However, visiting families still need to meet certain requirements before they can see loved ones. They are asked questions provided by the health department, and must have their temperature taken. Additionally, only residents who have tested negative for the virus are eligible for these visits. And staff members supervise the visits to ensure no one leaves either the car or the vestibule.
Pomeranz compares the drive-in visits to hitting a double in a game of baseball: Not ideal, but still better than nothing.
“I don’t want to oversell it, because it’s not really what anyone wants as the final solution,” Pomeranz said. It’s “at least something to give you a little feeling of improvement and optimism.”
Among the first round of drive-in visits, Fassler’s was particularly emotional. Five months earlier, her great-grandson was born. She got to meet him for the first time during a visit, when her granddaughter held the baby outside the window of the parked car.
“I was so thrilled,” Fassler said. Tears were coming down my face. (Pomeranz) had tears in his eyes with me. He came over and thanked me for sharing my grandson with him, because it was such an enjoyable moment.”
Prior to her drive-in visit, Fassler had only seen the baby in photographs.
“I have loads of pictures of him,” Fassler said. My granddaughter “sent me two full rolls of pictures. But it was nothing like seeing him.”
Before the outbreak, Stoller would visit his mother a few times a week. But even when he wasn’t able to see his mother in person, he did his best to keep in contact with her through phone calls and FaceTime meetings.
Still, he was relieved to see her in person after nearly three months of being apart.
Stoller admired the creativity and persistence of Pomeranz’s team in making the visits a reality, especially in this unique way.
“No one else was doing it,” Stoller said. “No one else had thought of it, I guess.”
But to Stoller, the drive-in visits are the latest manifestation of the Hebrew Home’s desire to put both residents and their families at ease. In addition to the drive-in visits, staff members at the Hebrew Home also host Thursday webinars for family members to keep them in the loop about what’s happening inside the facility.
“Besides the fact that I think they’re taking great care of my mom, they’re taking good care of me,” Stoller said. “I can’t ask for more.”