Inside the ups, downs of senior communities amid COVID

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Kim Dunlap, Kokomo Tribune, Ind.
·6 min read
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Feb. 20—Century Villa Health Care and Rehabilitation resident Rosalyn Beachy worked to put the finishing touches on her tree as she and several others gathered for art class inside the facility's community room earlier this month.

Little white blossoms carefully placed at the end of long bare branches.

It's a painting that could easily represent what life's been like inside the Greentown facility over the past nearly year of quarantine, as it's been with thousands of other nursing homes and assisted living centers throughout the world.

The harsh "winter" of COVID-19, soon to be replaced by the blossoms of hope.

Challenging times

It's no secret Century Villa has seen its fair share of heartache over the past year, though workers there expect to hopefully be COVID free by the end of next week.

But the residents are resilient, Activity Director Catharine Hill said.

"There's a lot of changes and a lot of ups and downs, sometimes weekly, sometimes daily and sometimes even hourly," she noted. "... I think what we always say around here is that it is what it is, and we roll with it. You don't have a choice. It's what you do, and you have to think outside the box, and sometimes the box isn't even there. And you just have to learn to adapt."

And it's not just Century Villa either.

Susan Albers is the executive director of Bloom at Kokomo, and she said life inside her assisted living facility these past few months has also been challenging.

But there have been some little rewarding moments along the way too, she added.

"I think it [COVID and quarantine] has really let everyone know what's important in life," she said. "Family, community, caring about each other and putting each other first. It's really taken away a lot of the stuff that we used to make so important, and it really has changed things up a bit to show what really matters.

"The whole benefit of assisted living is that they [residents] get meals and get help with their housekeeping and laundry," Albers added. "But they also have the opportunity to socialize with other seniors and do activities. That socialization helps with their cognizance and keeping that sharper mind. ... So it's been a change with COVID because some of those things we couldn't do as freely. We've just learned to take it in stride."

And taking it in stride, Hill and Albers noted, often meant getting a little creative when quarantine was at its highest point.

Activities galore

At Century Villa, there is a section of hallways known as the "Green Zone," an area made up specifically of COVID-free residents.

For several months due to quarantine and the inability to hold group activities, visiting those residents meant Hill had to don personal protective equipment (PPE) and go room to room, carrying her supplies up and down the hallways with her.

And for those residents actually in the COVID hallways, Hill said she created what she called "project packs," complete with a daily menu, a chronicle of historic events that happened on that day, reading material and fun activities like a word search puzzle or coloring page.

It was pretty much the same over at Bloom at Kokomo too, Albers noted, citing socially distanced bingo — where residents sat in their doorways — as one of the most popular activities of the past year.

Like Century Villa, Bloom at Kokomo also made sure to have plenty of activities residents could do inside their own apartments for safety purposes, but both Hill and Albers agreed that the best kind of activity is one truly done together.

That's why recent government restrictions that have eased up a bit on issues like dining and group activities have been so valuable, the two noted.

From socially distanced and fully-masked Valentine's and Mardi Gras parties to art class and other activities, Hill and Albers said there is now light at the end of the tunnel.

And the residents are feeling it too.

Hope is near

Hill laughed during her phone interview with the Tribune last week as she thought about what group gatherings now mean to Century Villa's residents.

"They enjoy being around other people and especially people their own age," Hill said. "You just have to watch because they want to get too close to each other, and they want to chit chat. They have their friends in here, and they want to be able to see them. ... But the attitude this time around [since the first few weeks and months of quarantine] has been much better. ... They know it's not permanent. They know it's temporary, and we'll get back to doing this stuff again."

Albers agreed with Hill, adding that the residents at Bloom at Kokomo are also definitely becoming aware that there is hope on the horizon.

"We all want to get back to the pre-pandemic way of life," she said, "We're called Bloom, and there's a reason for that. We want our seniors to bloom, but we also know that that's going to come with time right now. ... It's been a challenge, but we've figured it out and done fairly well. And the residents seem very happy now and very conscious of it all."

And with each passing day, that light does become just a little bit brighter.

Century Villa is on its second round of COVID vaccinations, and nearly all of the residents will be fully inoculated within the next couple of weeks.

For Bloom at Kokomo residents, slightly behind Century Villa due to being an assisted living facility and not a nursing home, residents there will have their second round of COVID vaccines sometime in mid-March.

Hill and Albers said they are also already planning the massive parties that will accompany their facilities' re-openings to the public.

"We usually have what we call a family fun day every year, and we weren't able to do that last year," Hill said. "So we'll probably have a big event when all of this is done with families and the community with car shows and bounce houses and face painting and all that. And the residents, I can just see the smiles already."

Albers echoed Hill's sentiments.

"We've already started planning some things," she said. "I think we're just going to really embrace life. Things that seemed routine to us before, I think we'll have a new appreciation for it all. Taking them out for an outing, letting the families go in and go to their apartments and visit with them, just little things that we took so much for granted. We're not going to take those for granted anymore."

But though there is reason to smile right now, the pair said there is still one thing that has been missing pretty much since the very beginning of quarantine.

"My favorite thing to do is hug the seniors," Albers said. "I just want to hug them and love them. So we just have to love them in different ways right now. We hug them with cards and just talking to them and listening to them and being there for them. They know we can't hug them, but we can tell them how we feel. We can still say we care about them. But hugging? In this industry, you just hug a lot. And I'm just so waiting for the day that I can just run up and hug them again."