These are indeed unprecedented times for us all. As a professional organization that provides service to clients in the senior living realm, we are aware that site visits need to be restricted in order to minimize health risks. This, of course, is true for all visitors to your campuses: professionals, family members, friends and even delivery persons. We will continue to respect these restrictions as we fully understand the need for them and continue to hold as the highest goal the comfort, health and dignity of your residents.
During this unusual time, however, it is even more important to maintain community connections for your residents. The anxiety that we all feel is exacerbated when we are cut off from our usual community connectivity habits, our daily coffee conversations and our personal interactions with other humans. It is too easy to wrap our thoughts and actions around the physical well-being and protection of physical health and forget about the emotional toll isolation and loneliness can take.
We applaud all healthcare workers and understand the stress under which they courageously perform their work. If adding to that stress is the management of residents’ desires to remain as socially interactive with their community as they can, we have a few suggestions that could reduce some of that stress:
- Embrace technology. It is not difficult to set up a specific physical area on campus with internet connectivity where residents can Facetime or Skype with friends and family. Organize this as an activity and assign a volunteer to keep a schedule such that each resident can participate. If family members outside the campus don’t have the equipment necessary, provide an iPad to another volunteer that can physically visit that family member at the specified time. After each session, disinfect the “meeting room” and equipment;
- Create a “safe” visiting room. This could be two rooms separated by a partition with glass through which residents can see their visitors and communicate via an intercom system or even better, their own mobile phones. A similar arrangement could be set up for internal visits between residents. Again, a scheduling system would need to be in place and adequate cleaning practices completed between visits;
- If your facility is a single floor design, rent a small portable event tent that can be moved between resident exterior windows. While this is not an ideal situation, visitors can see their resident through the window and be at least partially protected from weather as they communicate via their mobile phone. Make the situation as comfortable as possible for the visitor with seating that is placed at the same eye level as the resident inside, perhaps with a small side table and a carafe of coffee;
- Organize an ongoing email or texting stream. This can be communication on a specific schedule between residents and family or friends. They would each anticipate the email at a certain time and thus catch up on each other’s life. Include pictures taken by staff of the residents to enhance the communication. Be diligent in the schedule in order that residents look forward to the activity. Share the pictures taken with other residents and staff who may be isolated;
- Get staff fully involved; be creative. This may seem redundant, but your staff is probably focused on health care and not social interaction. Give them a break, sit down with them and brainstorm. They are on the front lines; they see the toll isolation takes on residents every day and they have some great ideas;
- Do the same with family members. Keep them involved and tap their creative minds and their desire to maintain connectivity with residents. Whatever course is taken, make sure family members are fully aware of the choices made so they can continue their involvement with residents.
Now is the time to not only embrace technology, but to embrace social media. It may be viewed currently as something that will sustain the well-being of your residents during this upsetting time, but in the long run, it will be the norm for your incoming resident population cohort. Provide a physical and organizational infrastructure that supports active social networking. It is easy to complain about teenagers who would rather text their friends than simply embark on a conversation with them. In today’s new “normal”, this is what is necessary and getting an older generation involved in that necessity can help serve to break feelings of social isolation.
And it is not too late to think about the future. While these are unusual times, chances are we may see a repetition of this pandemic in another form in the future. While we hope and pray that won’t happen, let’s make sure we are prepared for it. If you are remodeling your facilities or if you are planning new facilities, add a “clean room” for social interaction or at least prepare to put one in place when necessary. The best case is that you won’t need it for a pandemic, but can utilize it when an individual resident may have need of it during their specific isolation. Provide easy access for visitors without going through resident areas. Provide finishes and furnishings that are easily sanitized but make it comfortable for residents and visitors alike. Orient your staff to its proper use and encourage your residents and their families to utilize it.
We can remain a well-connected and a stronger community by doing everything possible to eliminate social isolation even as we vigilantly protect our elderly residents’ health.
Senior Living Expert Contributor