Loneliness and social isolation have remained longstanding problems amongst residents of community based developmental centers, group homes, supervised apartment community care residences, nursing homes and residential settings for individuals with developmental disabilities. COVID-19 has brought this issue to epidemic proportions.
To combat this healthcare crisis, Assembly Democrats Valerie Vainieri-Huttle (D-Bergen), Joann Downey (D-Monmouth) and Daniel Benson (D-Mercer, Middlesex) sponsor a bill (A-5123), approved this week by the Assembly Human Services Committee, that would require each community based residential program in New Jersey to adopt, implement, and adhere to written policies that would foster face-to-face personal connection and socialization. It would also provide the necessary technology to enable online socialization to those who cannot interact with others face-to-face.
This bill would require the Department of Human Services (DHS) to distribute the available funds necessary to assist the residential programs in acquiring needed technology. Additionally, the following isolation prevention policies would be a condition for State licensure:
· Devise and produce written protocols and procedures encouraging residents to engage in face-to-face or verbal/auditory contact using electronic or virtual means, including religious and recreational activities.
· Provide residents with access to and assistance with technological devices.
· Include specific administrative policies to address the acquisition, maintenance and replacement of all technological devices that would aid in face-to face communication and/or virtual communication. This would also include recreational and religious activities.
· Assign the appropriate staff, along the resident’s family members or guardians to develop individualized plans for the increased socialization of residents.
· Monitor requisition use, maintenance and proper return of devices.
· Designate program staff to properly train other appropriate staff members in these policies.
As relief from isolation is needed now, the bill would also require the DHS to adopt rules and regulations to implement the bill on an emergency basis, within 60 days after the bill’s effective date.
Upon committee approval, Vainieri Huttle, Downey, and Benson issued the following joint statement.
“The isolation and loneliness that many community residents suffer has increased significantly as a result of the pandemic. We must help those in these particularly vulnerable situations maintain good mental health.
“Offering a means of connection to others, either by way of personal contact or via technology, is one important step to improving the lives of so many New Jersey community based-residents.”
“While social distancing guidelines have saved countless lives, they have also led to the social isolation of those living in community-based centers. This bill will prioritize the mental and physical well-being of those in group homes by allowing them to get the social interaction they have lacked over the past year and reduce their social isolation.”