The visits will be nothing like residents or their loved ones were used to before the COVID-19 crisis, but New Jersey on Sunday started giving its 70,000 residents of long-term care facilities the opportunity to see family and friends in person.

The option had been unavailable since March in order to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, while virus cases and protocols inside the facilities kept residents isolated from one another and often held in their own rooms for activities and treatment.

Institutions, in the meantime, say they had been implementing efforts to protect the mental health of residents who'd been suddenly shut out from seeing their children and other relatives, for several weeks straight.

"Even people who have severe memory impairment — they benefit by hearing the voice of someone that they love, having that person hold their hand, touch them, sing to them," said Mary Catherine Lundquist, program coordinator at the COPSA Institute for Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders at Rutgers University.

COPSA handles the Care2Caregivers helpline. The pandemic has resulted in calls from caregivers who miss their loved ones living inside a long-term care facility, and worry about their quality of life, Lundquist said. Facilities for seniors have remained hot spots for COVID-19 cases and deaths.

"People don't lightly just put people into a nursing home, so lots of times there's lots of guilt that goes with that," Lundquist said.

With the new rules in place, two-person visits can be scheduled for residents. The visits themselves are to occur in a designated outdoor area, with everyone involved wearing masks and maintaining social distancing.

"Virtual communication can never replace a gathering face to face," Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said Friday during a COVID-19 media briefing.

According to Dr. Manisha Parulekar, chief of Geriatrics for Hackensack University Medical Center, the Hackensack-Meridian network immediately started making adjustments at its long-term care facilities when visits were initially prohibited, in case the crisis happened to last longer than a couple weeks.

Buildings were supplied with tablets so residents could video-chat with family and friends who were essentially forced to stay at home as well.

"We try to minimize social isolation as much as possible. Social interaction is important for them," Parulekar said. "We also encouraged our families to try to send in some favorite meals or pictures or books."

Parulekar said the network did not deal with a lot of pushback from families desperate to see long-term care residents.

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