Long-term care facilities find new activities for residents
It's fortuitous that Michael Langlois has a background in theater. That prepared him — if inadvertently — for a recent project at StoneRidge Senior Living Community in Mystic, where he's been the long-time director of community life.
In an effort to entertain and intellectually stimulate the residents at StoneRidge, Langlois was able to redefine his role at the facility, so to speak. Navigating the exterior of the facility, he stopped at several strategic points where several occupants could see him from their windows — and perform Shakespearean soliloquies, one at each stop, in full Elizabethan regalia.
"I loved my theater experiences, but I don't want to oversell my abilities," he laughs. "On the other hand, there was a definite silliness factor involved that can't be undersold. And in these times, I don't mind looking a little silly if it will take (the residents' ) minds off things for a little while. We've learned that, for any of us, if you can even get five minutes when you're not thinking about how the world's turned upside down, that's a good thing."
Langlois's Bard Tour is just one of many new and creative ways area professionals in his business have come up with to help residents of long-term health care facilities and senior living communities stay intellectually and physically stimulated and during the coronavirus pandemic. By definition a busy and innovatively demanding occupation, the role of what might be called an activities director for seniors has demanded an upswing in ideas and execution with the spread of COVID-19.
Traditional and reliably effective and popular social events, games, concerts, group movie or bingo nights, happy hours and so on have either been suspended or altered in ways to ensure residents remain in their rooms and practice social distancing and other safety practices designed to prevent spread of the virus.
"Since early March, recreational therapy in a long-term setting has really changed," says Julie Boras, a recreational therapist at Bride Brook Health and Rehabilitation Center in East Lyme. She describes the "old normal" where 20 to 30 residents would gather at a time in the dining room for numerous daily activities, and that's not including meals — which comprised prime and popular socializing opportunities.
"That all came to a halt," she says. "There are no visitors allowed, no group activities or communal meals. Our residents were essentially stripped of their families and friends; their lifelines were taken away — and for us, socialization and physical and mental stimulation are key to longevity."
There's a difference between a long-term health care facility — where residents typically require some sort of 24/7 care — and a senior living community, which offer independent residential apartments along with the medical assistance they need. But both have presented similar activities challenges.
SUBHEAD: Positive energy
Boras says her staff prepares daily activities packets for each resident that include such things as "Word of the Day," short fiction, trivia, jokes and a "Good News Story." "We like to stick notes of inspiration on lunch and dinner trays," she says, "and at the same time, we're always sending notes to family members and loved ones. We get ideas from everywhere."
"(Area activities directors) stay in touch with one another, and we also get ideas from online forums and professional organizations," says Nicole McDonough, director of therapeutic recreation at Fairview Retirement Community in Groton. "We have a great staff that comes up with ideas, and we maintain good communication with families and update them as to what we're doing. It was when family members started visiting (outside, through windows) and bringing signs that gave us an idea for a parade, and we also had one resident who suggested sewing face masks for the staff."
Of course, maintaining a lighthearted sense of purpose is important. In that context, personnel mobility has become key, and the facility corridors have become super-connectors of fun and relaxation. Now regular events include rolling specialty snack and treat carts or specialty cocktail tours, and singalongs engage residents on a room-to-room basis. Social interaction is accomplished through hallway bingo and hallway bowling. Carts also distribute books, decks of cards, magazines, coloring books and crossword puzzles, and small craft projects that residents can do in their rooms.
"We have car races in small groups, with a sort of block party mentality," says Charlene Wisdom, executive director as Solstice Senior Living in Groton. "The residents sit in their doorways, and we have small remote cars driven by residents or staff members. It's really cute and fun; we have a police car and a Corvette and two monster trucks. In fact, it was a resident, a NASCAR fan, who came up with the idea. So everyone's contributing any way they can."
"We try to have fun in general in the midst of all this," says Bill White, president and administrator at Beechwood Post-Acute and Transitional Care in New London. "If you can keep the mood light and positive, that's important. Mary Rivera, our therapeutic recreation director, and her staff come up with some great stuff. We had a Silly Dress-Up Day recently." He laughs. "It happened to be the day the state and national guard showed up, and they joked about whether we regularly washed our clothes." (The visit was part of a series of spot inspections by the state's Department of Health, with assistance from trained members of the Connecticut National Guard.)
SUBHEAD: The great outdoors
As with Langlois' Shakespeare performances, warmer weather means there can be more outdoor possibilities for entertainment and activities. Residents' windows present prime and direct means of connection. Many facilities have outdoor porches or decks where residents can wave at or communicate with one another in properly distanced fashion. Too, strolling concerts, where musicians perform mini-sets at various points on a facilities perimeters to ensure that each occupant has an opportunity to see are resonating in a big way.
"Usually once or twice a week, we have artists and entertainers roaming the grounds and performing," Langlois says. "I think that's fairly typical at most of these facilities because we're all trying to do as much as we can for the residents. A lot of these entertainers have their own portable PA systems, and they can move easily from spot to spot."
The possibilities seem unlimited, and facilities have hosted church choirs and choral groups chantey singers, guitarists, harpists, fiddle players, bagpipers and even include a recent Bride Brook appearence by former "The Voice" finalist Braiden Sunshine. Variously themed parades, from civic groups to family processionals, are increasing with the spring weather, and animals are always popular, whether a pony's promenade or a roaming dog show.
SUBHEAD: Staying connected
Naturally, online activities and virtual visits via iPads and through Skype, Zoom conferencing and similar online video meeting apps, are essential and invaluable. Not only do residents want to stay connected to the world and what's going on, they can watch movies or videos, play games or listen to music and, most importantly, communicate with friends, family and loved ones.
"The residents are in place and we have to be their eyes and ears to the world, so online activities and video conferencing with family, and just our own one-on-one conversations are very important to keep the residents stimulated," Wisdom says. "The saying 'If you don't use it, you lose it' is important to remember. Seniors can have a rough time with isolation so we do everything we can to keep them intellectually active."
"As the virus progressed and time has gone by, families and residents are missing each other terribly," Boras says. "A LOT of our days are doing Skype and arranging FaceTime and Zoom calls. In many ways, the hardest part of the job is watching the families tell each other they love each other and trying to assure one another everything will be OK."
She pauses and describes situations when residents are dying — when she or members of her staff might have to facilitate farewell calls between the resident and family members.
"It's not something we anticipated having to do before the virus," Boras says. "You sometimes know when it's going to happen, and you try to arrange as much face time as you can. We become a lifeline in a way, and we all cry together. It's incredibly difficult, but at the same time it's a privilege, you know? There's a sense of your heart settling a bit when it's over because we've done everything we can as a facility for our patients and their families and friends."
SUBHEAD: Rewards of the job
As difficult and unprecedented as their jobs have become, the professionals in these facilities whose jobs are to nurture their residents all say they are gratified and feel blessed by the experiences.
"More than ever, I feel my job is very rewarding," McDonough says. "It's rewarding when you have a good visit with a resident or bring them a sense of comfort and you can ease their concerns a bit — especially in these times when, in a sense, we become family and they're counting on us to stay connected."
"I've always found this job rewarding," Boras adds. "Now more than ever, I continue to feel that. The residents brighten when we come into the room, and though they miss the activities, they thank us wholeheartedly for sitting with them, talking with them, playing games ... That's an incredible feeling."
And, in the end, as White points out, there are always certain inviolable truths.
"There are things you know instinctively when you get into this business," White says. "The residents are what's always important. Then there are some things you learn after a while. The biggest thing is Bingo. No matter what happens, you don't change or cancel Bingo. Period.