For all the anxiety and uncertainty the coronavirus has caused in the community at large, consider the fear for residents of senior living facilities.
Weeks before "shelter in place" restrictions went into effect for the general population, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that people 65 and older, especially those living in a nursing home or long-term care facility, were at higher risk of severe illness as the virus spread. Although deaths from the coronavirus have been reported across all age groups, including pediatric cases, the illness is especially deadly among older people, often because they have underlying health issues that complicate their care.
Administrators responded to the threat of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, with various lockdown measures — no group gatherings, no communal meals, no outside visitors. Such practices were meant to safeguard the residents' physical health, but the quarantines came with their own set of challenges.
"It's very lonely [for them]," said Danielle Daverson, administrator of Southern Heritage Assisted Living in East Ridge. "We're watching for signs of depression and anxiety, trying to encourage them to not watch the news all the time. They need a break from it, just like we do."
To combat the loneliness of the forced isolation, administrators and community advocates began reaching out to these at-risk populations to offer cheer and new ways to pass the time. While in-house efforts focused on activities to keep the residents physically and mentally engaged, the community outreach has provided tangible reminders that these neighbors are not forgotten.
In East Ridge, shiny red heart balloons have bobbed outside Southern Heritage Assisted Living. Pots of flowers are in bloom at Soddy-Daisy Health Care Center. At Brookdale Hixson, residents are getting to know new pen pals.
"Can you imagine being a resident at a health-care center where you are confined to your room?" said Laura Higgins Bates, who organized a recent effort to place flower pots, pinwheels and bird feeders outside the residential units at Soddy-Daisy Health Care Center.
When she and others have been back to water the plants, fill the feeders and secure errant pinwheels, "sometimes we see people waving at us through the windows," she said. "It's just a way for us to say we're thinking about them."
Their efforts have been much appreciated. "We thought it was magnificent," said Amy Linville, director of admissions at the facility, which houses 106 residents in short-term skilled rehab, long-term permanent care and hospice care.
"Psych services has stepped it up to check in and make sure nobody's getting depressed and declining," she said. "It's all hands on deck and everybody pulling together to observe and watch and make sure these patients are thriving."
A favorite activity is Facetime with family now that all outside visits are banned. The facility previously had an open-door policy that allowed visitors in the building 24/7, she said. Administrators moved to ban all outside visitors even before the CDC issued such guidance on March 20. "It's been a huge change," she said.
But visitors can still gather outside, which is what Bates' group of helpers did to position flower pots and bird feeders. Other neighbors have offered to color pictures to hang in residents' windows, and some have sent food to the staff.
"The community has been fantastic," said Linville.
Daverson has similar praise for the East Ridge neighbors remembering Southern Heritage Assisted Living, a 55-bed facility with about 40 current residents.
A family member of a resident and several friends delivered bouquets of bobbing balloons outside each resident's window, "and then we've had some teenagers who've written notes and cards to all the residents and all the staff, just encouraging us," she said.
Large bouquets of flowers have been divided into smaller arrangements and placed in individual rooms, and a Thirty-One Gifts consultant delivered gifts for everyone. In-room activities have included coloring books, puzzles, movies and one-on-one card games with staff members.
A collection of letters and photos sent from new pen pals to residents of Brookdale Hixson.View
"We had a very full calendar [before the pandemic]," Daverson said. "We [normally] have outside entertainment two or three times a week. We have game day, bingo day arts and crafts time. Now it's just one-on-one, whatever we can do with them."
Her facility previously had a 24/7 visitor policy as well, so the change has been pronounced.
"Family and friends could come and go as they wished," she said. [The residents] had visitors all the time. Now it's no visitation whatsoever, just health-care professionals. It's a big adjustment."
Likewise, finding new ways to engage residents has been a key concern at Morning Pointe Senior Living, which instituted "Morning Pointe in Motion" last month, giving residents at its 35 facilities across the Southeast a chance to learn new languages, take virtual road trips and participate in other activities designed to engage body, mind and spirit.
Staff members are "committed to using this time of social distancing to find new and innovative ways to help our residents continue to thrive," said company president Greg A. Vital.
The staff of Morning Pointe's two Shallowford Road facilities faced a more immediate life-threatening crisis Easter night when the facilities were damaged by a tornado.
"We're very fortunate there was no loss of life," Vital said. "The staff pulled off an amazing evacuation."
Morning Pointe employee Audra Hopkins said the staff remained calm after the tornado as residents were summoned to the lobby areas.
"Residents wanted to see a familiar face," she said.
Administrators say familiarity is comforting in crisis, so efforts to adhere to a daily routine go a long way toward keeping their residents happy. Even if family and friends can't visit, facilities are using technology, such as Facebook Live and Skype conversations, to maintain relationships.
That's true at Brookdale Hixson as well, but the thought was to expand the circle of acquaintances. Residents there reached out via Facebook to connect with pen pals.
Erin Edens, the resident programs coordinator, came up with the idea and photographed residents holding signs listing a few of their main interests, such as puzzles or gospel music. The initial Facebook post was shared close to 2,000 times within the first few days, said Mitch Kline, senior public relations specialist for parent company Brookdale Senior Living.
"People have been sent letters, sometimes pictures, and emails to the residents, saying 'Hey, I saw you're interested in sports. I love football.'"
The facility has received 30 to 50 letters a day and emails coming in from across the U.S., he said.
"The residents are thrilled to death with it," Kline said. "That's the whole purpose, making that connection."
With social distancing likely to continue in senior-care facilities even after sheltering measures end for the general population, Daverson said it's important to understand how much these small gestures mean to elderly residents.
"I'd love for this place to be flooded with cards or for people to drive by with encouraging posters and blow their horn and shout out," she said. "We have sidewalks around our buildings. I'd love for people who can sing to come out and carol with spring songs. I think that would be wonderful."
Contact Lisa Denton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You’ve probably heard the saying, “Friends in deed are friends indeed.” During these uncertain times, it’s reassuring to have people who come through for you. Whether it’s medical professionals going the extra mile in the fight against the coronavirus or a neighbor who has delivered groceries to your doorstep, here’s a way to offer your thanks. Tell us the examples of courage and kindness shown to you. Your stories of gratitude will remind us that together we will make it through. Submit your stories online at www.timesfreepress.com or email Life@timesfreepress.com.