PONTOTOC, Miss. (AP) - Residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the 41 counties will have the opportunity to visit with their families virtually this holiday season thanks to a $100,000 grant from the Mississippi Department of Human Services.
Over the next few days, MDHS Area on Aging Agencies will distribute 400 Chromebooks to 167 locations across the northern half of the state. Bill Renick, Three Rivers Planning & Development District’s WIOA Division Director, announced the program during a press conference at the Three Rivers office in Pontotoc on Wednesday.
Representatives from multiple planning and development districts will distribute the laptops to nursing home and assisted living facilities in their coverage areas.
The plan is to use the laptops to facilitate virtual visits between assisted living and nursing home residents and their families during the holidays. With the elderly population among the most vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19, such facilities have shut their doors to in-person visits during the pandemic.
“This is going to be like a real ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ here,” Renick said. “These 167 facilities, because of the fact that we were so unsure about delivery of computers, don’t know that this is going to happen.”
The Area on Aging programs will be administered by planning and development districts including Three Rivers, North Delta, South Delta, Northeast Mississippi, North Central and Golden Triangle. Funding through the Mississippi Access to Care (MAC) program is administered in 41 counties by Three Rivers and South Delta Planning & Development District.
“These 400 Chromebooks are going to be able to connect families and residents, hopefully, and the timing couldn’t be any better,” Renick said. “Not only is it the holiday season, but (due to) the fact that we have been through this tremendous pandemic since March, our residents in our long-term care facilities and nursing home facilities have been disconnected from families.”
Three Rivers ombudsman Cindy Collums, who coordinates federal and state programs offered through care facilities, said nursing home and assisted living facilities have seen firsthand the high cost of staff and personal care equipment during the onslaught of COVID-19.
As a result, facilities allowed residents to use staff members’ personal smartphones to make video calls with friends and family, creating two issues: resident complaints of small screens on phones and facility concerns with contamination.
Upon hearing about the ongoing issues, Three Rivers executive director Randy Kelley spoke with his counterparts at other planning and development districts in North Mississippi to discuss potential solutions. Then an opportunity presented itself: grant dollars from the Mississippi Department of Human Services.
“Just like manna from Heaven,” Renick said. “We had to come up with an idea of how we were going to spend that money, and this is what we came up with.”
Establishing communication between long-term care facility residents and their families is the goal. Renick said Three Rivers hopes there may be community organizations that will volunteer to communicate with residents who don’t have families.
Robert G. “Bob” Anderson, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, said he has a personal appreciation for what the Chromebooks will mean to residents of long-term care facilities. His mother-in-law is currently staying in the rehabilitation wing at a nursing facility and can only have visitors for 45 minutes every 10 days.
When Anderson was named executive director in March, the organization adopted a new mission statement: “Offering Mississippians, young and old, tangible help today to create a lasting hope for tomorrow.”
“These Chromebooks are going to be right down the path of providing hope to these residents,” Anderson said.
Anderson mentioned a family tradition of reading the story of Jesus’ birth in the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke during the Christmas season and recalled explaining to his daughter years ago that the word “gospel” means “good news.” Anderson told representatives of the planning and development districts in attendance on Wednesday that the Chromebooks will bring good news for long-term care residents.
“I thank you for the difference that you’re making in the lives of all of these residents and families who will benefit from hearing the good news, of just hearing somebody’s voice and seeing a face, saying ‘There’s my momma, there’s my grandmother, there’s my grandchild,’” Anderson said. “That will be good news for them at this time that we celebrate the greatest good news this time of the year.”
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