Larry Yabroff and his wife, Mary, greet each other during a February visit at Berkeley’s Chaparral House, a skilled nursing facility where Mary is a resident. “It’s hard to hug her in the wheelchair, but she likes to be touched,” Larry Yabroff says. Credit: Anne Wernikoff/CalMatters

This Sunday is a big one for Beth Ann Heffner of Berkeley. It’s Mother’s Day, and for Heffner things are lining up for it to be a Mother’s Day like none before.

For the first time in more than a year, Heffner should be able to visit her mother in person, not separated by windows or walls. For the first time in more than a year, she’ll be able to touch her.

“And now for Mother’s Day, hopefully … I’ll be able to hug her for the first time in 14 months. … I’m very excited,” said Heffner, who works as a paraeducator at Berkeley High School. “I think I’ll approach it delicately, like put my hand on her shoulder and see how it goes.”

Heffner’s mother, Barbara, who just turned 80, is a resident of a long-term care home in Fairfield. She has vascular dementia and good days and bad days, alert times and less alert. In a pandemic reality experienced around the globe, Heffner and her mom faced dramatically new nursing home rules under COVID-19 restrictions.

In-person visits, indoor visits, touching, sharing meals, contact among residents and other high-risk activities were halted, as care facilities were shaken by high rates of serious illness and death. Many residents were confined to their apartments or rooms for more than a year.

But now, as California virus rates improve, even in group living settings, lock-down restrictions are easing.

Under state guidelines, long-term care facilities are gradually allowing more physical contact, affecting hundreds of people in Berkeley who live or visit loved ones in care homes. The opening is in varying degrees, depending on the facility and someone’s vaccination status.

The impact can be profound.

“People are so happy to be back. A lot more laughter, a lot more noise, a lot more people coming and going. You can hug. It’s just all good. It’s so exciting,” said KJ Page, administrator of Chaparral House, a skilled nursing residence in central Berkeley.

Indoor or outdoor, and with touch

Mary and Larry Yabroff. Credit: Anne Wernikoff/CalMatters

“It’s hard to hug her in the wheelchair, but she likes to be touched,” said Berkeley resident Larry Yabroff, whose wife, Mary, has advanced Alzheimer’s disease and has lived at Chaparral for a little over a year.

Vaccinated in February, Yabroff was only allowed to visit her outside until a few weeks ago. Now they can meet indoors in a special visiting room, or out. The couple have been married for 50 years.

Toni Gardner, Councilmember Kate Harrison’s mother, welcomes her family to her assisted living apartment in Pinole for the first time in more than a year. Courtesy of Kate Harrison Credit: Kate Harrison

“She definitely knows who I am and likes when I’m there,” Yabroff said. “I can hold her hand and she’ll say two or three nonsensical things. I call her the consonant Buddhist. She’s living moment to moment. As soon as I leave, I’m out of her mind.”

The Yabroffs have one child and two grandchildren, who live in New York. They tried Zoom visits, but it didn’t work well, Yabroff said. “Mary, my wife, would just be staring at the screen.”

Their daughter visited in person recently, but her mother’s condition is deteriorating and “sadly” she didn’t really recognize her, Yabroff said.

Kate Harrison, a Berkeley City Council member whose 97-year-old mother lives in an assisted living residence in Pinole, was allowed to visit her mom in her apartment for the first time in over a year a few weeks ago. It was her mom’s birthday.

Harrison’s initial response, she said, was to start tidying.

“It was so strange, I spent the first half hour sort of straightening,” she said. “No one who had been part of her family had been there. The caregivers are really nice, but they don’t really know how to put things away, they don’t know how to use her computer.”

Her mom had forgotten passwords, so banking, emails and other things had all backed up.

“We gave her a hug, and just to be able to pat her on the head and rub her hair was a big deal,” said Harrison, whose last in-person visit with her mom was last summer, outside.

She reflects on the pandemic’s toll. “She really is not as sharp as she was. I feel this sadness. I don’t think she’s going to recover from this. One year of my life is just one year out of my life, but one year out of your life when … you’re 96 is a big deal.”

Vaccination allows freedoms

The state’s long-term care guidelines are based on many factors, including a county’s color-coded tier in the state’s reopening blueprint, a measure of virus severity. Also factored in are a facility’s size, staffing levels, layout and history of COVID-19 illnesses.

The sometimes confusing mix of requirements and recommendations are periodically updated, based on the virus.

Berkeley is currently in the orange tier. As of about a month ago, indoor visits are allowed regardless of vaccination status, as long as they’re held in a space that isn’t crowded and are relatively brief. Masks, social distancing and COVID-19 screening before entry — such as temperature-taking — are still required.

Facility administrators describe the gradual loosening of restrictions as cautious small steps.

Al Macasieb is the administer of Berkeley Pines skilled nursing home, a 36-bed home that had a significant virus outbreak last summer, with around half of the residents getting sick, and one death. Vaccinated residents can now hug briefly and hold hands, but Berkeley Pines is taking reopening slowly.

“We’re still in an epidemic; I’m still very cautious and we’re very vigilant,” he said.

Visits have been allowed since mid-March at Chaparral House, which has a capacity of 49, with no resident virus cases to date.

“Everyone has to wear a mask, vaccinated or not,” Page said. “If you’re fully vaccinated you can take your mask off in a private room and share a meal.”

Vaccination is voluntary, even for facility workers. Staff can ask visitors if they’re fully vaccinated and let them know what doors this opens, Page said. “We’re not allowed to require vaccination, and it’s their own personal choice. I’ve asked them to tell me. If they say they aren’t vaccinated, we ask them to not hug and to maintain distance.”

Outside visits

For Holly Singh, the loosening of residential care restrictions means having her brother home on Saturdays again, after more than a year of only being able to visit him at a gate.

“It’s wonderful to have J. back [home on Saturdays],” said Singh, a Berkeley resident and special education teacher in Alameda.  “It feels really good, it just feels really, really good.” Singh asked not to use her brother’s full name in order to protect his confidentiality.

Holly Singh of Berkeley enjoys in-person visits with her brother J., a board and care resident, for the first time in months. Both are fully vaccinated. Credit: Holly Singh Credit: Holly Singh

J., 47, has lived in a Berkeley board and care since he was 23 years old.

The long-time Singh tradition is a family day on Saturdays, with chores, cooking and eating, in a home that belonged to her grandparents, Singh said. She lives with an elderly uncle with autism and her mother, 82, who can’t live independently, and she helps care for both.

In early April, when everyone was fully vaccinated, the tradition commenced. J. picked the menu in honor of his homecoming, and the family feasted on BBQ ribeye steaks and a unicorn cake from Baskin Robbins.

“I felt bad because the highlight of his week was to come here on Saturdays and spend the day with us,” Singh said. “The board and care is an institution. It’s pretty sterile. [But] this is a house … a pretty comfortable house.”

J. said the epidemic brought him added anxieties as he worried about how far-reaching the impact would be. Being able to visit his sister’s house on the weekend makes him “very happy,” he said. “I feel very grateful to be able to go home.” He especially likes the barbecues. “Hamburgers and sparkling waters” this weekend, he thinks.

Susan Yeaman of El Cerrito is gearing up to resume a similar family tradition. With her mother and son both in skilled nursing at two different Oakland locations, she would pick up her son and drive to her mother’s residence, Piedmont Gardens, and they’d all walk to a nearby restaurant for a meal.

Her son, 40, has mental illness and a brain injury. Her mother, 90, who has dementia, uses a wheelchair, so rolling along Piedmont Avenue with its choice of eateries is an asset, Yeaman said.

Not quite fully vaccinated, Yeaman’s treading carefully before closer contact with her mom and son. She looks forward to family dining on the avenue again, but at the same time she says that the ability to see her family via Zoom “made a big difference” and she acknowledges that her lessened caretaking responsibilities have given her a bit of rest.

“I miss those times, but it’s a lot,” she said. “It’s a lot to do every week.”

Yabroff, whose wife is at Chaparral House, strives to keep perspective.

“For over a year we’ve dealt with such ambiguity and uncertainty,” he said. “On the one hand the vaccinations are wonderful, on the other hand there is still so much unknown. There is still an apprehension. This is this little window and how long is it going to last?”

J. enjoying a barbecue with his uncle Eric at his family’s Berkeley home. Credit: Holly Singh Credit: Holly Singh

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Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...