In early March, Suzanne Howes had a pretty good idea about the way she’d celebrate her 81st birthday the following month: She’d spend time with family and friends, hug her grandchildren and have everyone gather in closely to sing Happy Birthday while she blew out the candles on her cake.
Instead, by the time her big day rolled around in April, Howes found herself sitting in a lawn chair outside her apartment at The Legends of Woodbury, an independent senior living complex. As she fought off the early spring chill and pulled her coat a little tighter, she waved gamely as cars of well-wishers drove slowly by. There were homemade signs, bags of birthday gifts to hand over and plenty of enthusiastic honking.
Beside her was a gift from her daughter, Sherilyn — a jumbo package of toilet tissue. It was a present that would have seemed ridiculous just a few weeks ago, but which was very welcome now.
“It was a beautiful day, and my wonderful daughter planned it and surprised me, for which I’m so glad,” Howes said.
Still, there’s no denying that a “drive-by” birthday has its drawbacks.
“An elbow bump isn’t nearly as good as a hug,” Howes said.
These days, Howes is experiencing many “new normal” substitutions that aren’t nearly as nice as the real thing. Instead of chatting with friends in the now closed-off common areas of her community, she spends more time alone in her apartment. Instead of participating in large group events, she takes a daily, socially distanced, walk with a neighbor.
“The days are long and it can get lonely,” she said. “But there are people who have it much worse.”
As challenging as the cancellation of group activities within the community has been, her daughter said it’s a huge improvement over what could be happening if her mother were still living alone.
“She’s a joiner, a real Suzy Social, and while she’s missing lots of things, at least she can see other people’s faces and talk at a safe distance,” Sherilyn Howes said. “If she were by herself during a pandemic, she’d be cut off so much more.”
How to balance the risks and benefits of senior living in a congregate community is a topic that’s on the minds of many families in the Twin Cities these days.
As concerned as they might be about seniors living together in close proximity, they also value many things about the arrangement, including the psychosocial benefits of interaction with other people.
We spoke with leaders from some of these facilities to find out how they’re balancing the hard reality of a new virus with the softer side of our need for old-fashioned human interaction.
Moving quickly, changing forever
“Unprecedented” seems like an understatement for the times we’re living in, but registered nurse Marilyn DuBay has seen something like it before.
“I was a new nurse when the HIV/ AIDS epidemic began,” she said. “It changed how we worked forever after- ward, and I think this pandemic will have a similar lasting impact.”
DuBay is an infection control preventionist at Catholic Eldercare, a senior community with five locations in Northeast Minneapolis. Like senior communities across the state, they closed to all but nonessential staff members in March.
In response, Catholic Eldercare increased its use of telehealth visits with physicians, specialists and nurse practitioners.
“We quickly ramped up our capacity, and we now have a dedicated team to conduct telehealth visits,” DuBay said. “It’s safer for everyone, and it’s so much better for the patient to be literally ‘seen’ by someone, instead of having to describe a condition to their doctor over the phone.”
Responding to psychological needs has required creativity.
“We’ve set up schedules with families for video conferencing and window visits,” said Marie Barta, the organization’s director of operations for skilled services. “We’ve developed additional programming for our internal television station, Channel 6, and we do daily live broadcasts with updates, church services, entertainment and even recurring segments with charac- ters our staff have created. Residents really look forward to it.”
Hallway car races
Other communities across the state also have been ramping up to keep residents safe and informed.
Jamie Maddeaux is vice president of sales and marketing for Sholom, which has senior living facilities throughout the metro area. Sharing as much information as possible, as quickly as possible, has been a key goal for her organization.
“The landing page of the website contains a dashboard of all our relevant data,” she said. “We added a telephone hotline for those who aren’t comfortable with the computer.”
Sholom’s therapeutic recreational staff have found new ways to keep residents connected despite social distancing.
“We’ve been holding hallway bingo with people spaced 6 feet apart, and we’ve been doing remote control car races in the hallway, too,” she said.
There also are reasons to celebrate, especially when someone “graduates” from the COVID-19 treatment area.
“We had a resident who is 101 who got the virus — and then got better,” Maddeaux said. “We all applauded her when she moved out of isolation.”
Caregivers step up
Anne O’Connor is a nursing home administrator who is supporting state- wide response efforts for long-term care. She applauded the work of her colleagues who care for seniors.
“The staff working in senior living communities are incredibly resilient and creative,” she said. “The commitment of those working on the front lines is crucial.”
Even in the face of serious challenges, O’Connor is confident about the level of care and concern.
“There are constantly moments of joy in senior living communities,” she said. “These bonds cannot be broken, even during a pandemic.”
As an example, she shared a story about a nurse who was helping in a facility on a temporary basis.
“She speaks French, and she learned that a resident who was passing away was also a French speaker,” O’Connor said. “She spent time at the woman’s bedside, reading French poetry and singing to her in French. That’s the kind of thing that happens every day in long-term care.”
O’Connor is proud of her colleagues’ response to the pandemic.
“The dedication of caregivers is the reason that so many residents have been kept safe and protected,” she said. “The facilities that are doing well, either by avoiding a COVID case or by quickly and effectively containing cases in their building, are not the ones that are making the news, but they are putting forward enormous effort to follow the guidelines to keep our elderly safe.”
In a moment when everything is uncertain, O’Connor said one thing will remain the same — the need for adequate staffing levels.
“There are thousands of dedicated caregivers in the state, but we need more,” she said. “Senior care is a stable industry that needs committed individuals who want to form lasting relationships in their daily work.”
Julie Kendrick is a contributing writer for many local and national publications. She lives in Minneapolis. Follow her on Twitter @KendrickWorks.