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Senior communities offer creative solutions for connecting loved ones during COVID-19 quarantine

By Marie Fricker

On Mother’s Day morning, Katherine Calabro, 89, a resident of Windrose, an Alzheimer’s care community in Weymouth, was surprised to see four of her children and three grandchildren standing in the courtyard outside her building, wearing masks and waving.

At a safe distance a 5-piece band was playing the sweet strains of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Calabro, a slight, white-haired woman with piercing blue eyes, knew the song well and hummed along with it. She smiled at the staff member beside her and pointed at her family members. “Did you know I gave birth to all those people?”

Since the “no visitation” restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic were instituted in mid-March, many senior living residences are pulling out the stops to bridge the physical gap between their residents and the people who miss them.

Linda Donovan of Quincy, Calabro’s daughter, was one of 15 guests, as well as a news crew from Channel 7 TV, who attended the Mother’s Day celebration at Windrose. “Not being able to visit my mom for the last few months has been incredibly hard,” she said. “I can’t wait to take her out to get her hair done and go to lunch again. But for now, the window visits we get with her, the iPad facetime calls, and events like the party are helping a lot. We’re very grateful to the staff for the amazing things they do.”

Lynn Stefano, Director of Marketing at Windrose, planned and executed the Mother’s Day event, making sure that attendees maintained a six-foot distance from one another and kept their face masks on. Shaws Supermarket donated chocolates and tulips for the occasion, and Stop and Shop contributed 40 individual bouquets of carnations that were distributed to the residents and their nurses.

“It isn’t just holidays that are difficult for seniors and their families during this time of social isolation,” said Stefano. It’s doing without the simple pleasures of holding a loved one’s hand or watching a TV show together. Even though they have memory loss, our residents are thrilled to see a familiar face. They haven’t been able to get a hug or human touch from a loved one for months, and at a certain level of a disease, it’s all about the senses. It’s a very emotional time for all of us.”

At Brookdale, Quincy Bay, a 280-unit building of independent and assisted living apartments, Senior Executive Director Phyllis Delaricheliere and her team of 10 department heads have devised novel ways of connecting with isolated residents. Initiatives include “HELLO windows,” Facebook Fridays sessions, Facetime visits, and a newly introduced “Vitamin D Covid Café.”

“We allow family members to have coffee with their loved one in a designated outside space, but they are handed a pool noodle when they arrive to place between them,” said Delaricheliere. “The 6-foot noodle is a respectful way to help them maintain the proper social distancing without anyone nagging them to do so.”

Residents at Brookdale have been self-isolating in their apartments for more than two months. The common areas are closed down, and residents and associates get their temperatures checked daily. “I’ll admit it’s been tough at times,” said Delaricheliere. But safety is of utmost importance to all of us here.”

DeLarichiere puts in long hours with her associates, but she is happy to do it. “We are all doing what we need to do right now,” she said. I would rather be there for the residents and my colleagues than sheltering at home.”

Brookdale’s dining program has been featuring crowd favorites, such as Beef Wellington, and preparing three meals a day for the residents. Staff members deliver the meals, as well as mail and packages, directly to the apartment doors, and during a recent Mardi Gras celebration, residents also received deliveries of “mocktails,” beads, and homemade warm churros.

To combat the loneliness of seniors who have been isolated since March, DeLaricheliere and her managers visit residents every day, and the eight members of the community’s Resident Council take turns calling people regularly to check on their wellbeing.

Brookdale staff members also host a weekly Zoom town hall with about 120 family members and independent living residents taking part. “They ask about Covid, their loved ones, and our protocols here, and thank us for what we’ve  been doing,” said DeLarichiere. “There are a lot of misconceptions out there, and it’s nice to have clear communications. Nobody likes rules, but the families have become a part of our team. I want them to feel invested in the process. We are all in this together.”

Another South Shore senior community—The Bridges by EPOCH, a memory care facility in Hingham, has been using state-of-the-art technology to provide its residents with virtual connections and experiences throughout the last few months.

Adele Pepin, Vice-President of Marketing at Bridges, believes technology is keeping her residents active and happy during this time of physical distancing from their families. “People with dementia don’t always understand why their loved ones aren’t visiting them anymore,” said Pepin. “That’s why we set up live video chats so they can see their family members’ faces, hear their voices, and know they are still loved and missed.”

While residents are under quarantine in their small household units, they are able to engage with interactive, dementia-friendly, online platforms. They can take virtual exercise classes, such as Tai Chi and chair yoga, travel to exciting destinations around the world, play games, and nurture their spirits with sermons, hymns and inspirational videos. The Bridges by EPOCH team recently hosted a “Virtual Memory Café,” a Zoom session of ‘50s trivia and music for residents, family members, and staff.

“We also post frequently on Facebook for families to see their loved one engaged in activities or enjoying the nice spring weather outdoors in our enclosed courtyards,” said Pepin. “Our goal is to keep our residents with memory loss physically, cognitively and socially engaged every day,” said Pepin. “I think we’re doing that very well.”

From parties, to pool noodles, senior communities throughout the state are going above and beyond to make their residents feel happy, secure and connected with the people who can no hold their hands.

Shirley Green, 101, has been self-isolating in her apartment at Brookdale Quincy Bay for the last 2 ½ months, but she doesn’t view it as a hardship. “I can honestly say that I’ve never been bored,” said Green, who is visually impaired. “I can always find something to do, whether it’s rearranging a drawer, looking at photos on my Facebook page, listening to a book on tape, watching the news, or emailing my friends and family. Our director, Phyllis, has done everything possible to keep us all safe here, and I am doing exactly what she wants. I made it through the Great Depression, and I can make it through this too. I’m happy to be exactly where I am.”

Reprinted from the June 2020 edition of the South Shore Senior News.