Seniors 'getting back to living' after more than a year of pandemic restrictions

·8 min read

Jun. 2—FALMOUTH — For months, Beverly Wakely would prop her phone against a coffee cup on her kitchen table and log into her virtual exercise class. Every day at 5 p.m., she'd sit in her doorway and do crossword puzzles with friends across the hall.

Largely confined to her apartment at OceanView at Falmouth while the number of coronavirus cases grew around her, the 91-year-old retired teacher looked forward to someday getting back to the exercise classes, lectures, concerts and birthday parties that had occupied her days before the pandemic. Now, after more than 14 months, Wakely and others in the fully vaccinated independent living community are finding their way back to a new normal.

"It's wonderful to see their full face and their smiles," said Wakely, who has happily ditched her mask during exercise classes and visits with friends and family.

One of the first COVID-19 cases reported in Maine — and the first in a facility that caters to older residents — was at OceanView at Falmouth. The resulting outbreak grew to a dozen cases and at least two residents died. Over the past month, dining rooms have reopened, activities have been able to resume in-person and without masks, and it's easier for visitors to stop by.

"Bit by bit, we're getting back to living," said Eleanor Kubeck, who has lived at OceanView for four years.

As federal guidance changes and state restrictions ease, retirement communities and long-term care facilities across the state are resuming activities, offering communal dining without distancing and allowing more visitors. Facility staff say the changes are an important step toward resuming the level of socialization with neighbors and visitors that residents depended on before the pandemic.

"They are slowly returning to a more normal state of affairs," said Rick Erb, president and CEO of the Maine Health Care Association, which represents 92 nursing homes and 105 assisted-living facilities. "There is a certain amount of relief. I don't know of any places that haven't been pining for the good old days and wanting to get back to normal."

Erb said very high rates of vaccination among residents have been key to returning to a life that feels more normal. There were early challenges in getting vaccine to residents of independent living communities — they were not prioritized along with nursing homes and assisted-living facilities — but those have not persisted. When the association last surveyed members about vaccines at long-term care facilities in March, 92 percent of residents and 65 percent of employees had been vaccinated.

Piper Shores in Scarborough, which offers independent living and long-term care, has not had a single case of COVID-19 among residents and now 99 percent of the residents and 86 percent of the staff have been fully vaccinated, said Andrea Killiard, marketing and life enrichment director. There were a few positive cases among the 250 staff members, but no transmission was detected during universal testing.

The success with vaccination and the fact that residents did not get sick allowed Piper Shores to resume some activities sooner than other facilities, Killiard said. Following guidance from Gov. Janet Mills and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, activities like art classes and book clubs can now be held without masks or social distancing for residents in the independent living side of the community.

In the assisted-living, memory care and nursing care units, Piper Shores follows guidelines from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that include mask requirements for unvaccinated visitors. Piper Shores staff continue to wear masks regardless of vaccination status and visitors are not allowed in common areas.

Killiard said the shift back toward pre-pandemic norms has been welcomed by residents who can now visit more freely with loved ones and see people without masks.

"There's this joy that is present. Now you can actually see them smiling," she said. "People are just feeling very free and very light without having to wear a mask. There's a sense of glee in the air."

At The Atrium, the senior living community at The Cedars in Portland, all residents and staff are now vaccinated. Over the past month and a half, there have been "huge" shifts as residents can once again welcome visitors into their apartments, dine together without social distancing and remove masks when they are in rooms where everyone is fully vaccinated. Entertainers and lecturers have started visiting again.

"It has been a wonderful, positive change," said Katharine O'Neill, spokesperson for The Cedars.

In the assisted-living and long-term care units, there are still more restrictions in place because of the level of care, O'Neill said. But residents can now have visitors, regardless of vaccination status, and rely less on video calls to stay connected to loved ones. When residents and their guests are vaccinated, they can take off their masks and hug each other, O'Neill said.

"It's been a tough year, but everyone is really pleased to see the light," O'Neill said. "It's all very positive and we're very thankful."

'IT WAS A VERY SCARY TIME'

The first case at OceanView was reported on March 15, the day Mills declared a civil state of emergency. It was the first case identified in a facility catering to older residents, according to state health officials. And it was the beginning of an outbreak that started from an exposure at a dinner and grew to a dozen cases in residents of the independent retirement community.

"It was a very scary time," said Diane Kibbin, OceanView's director of operations. "We felt it was coming, but we didn't know that it was already here."

There were multiple deaths of OceanView residents with COVID-19, but company officials cited the privacy of residents as the reason for not publicly disclosing the number.

Albert "Kreck" Kelsey, a historian and author, was 87 when he died on March 26, 2020, at OceanView at Falmouth. He was the first Mainer known to have died of COVID-19 and his death marked the beginning of a somber and scary period for Maine and for residents of retirement communities and long-term care facilities. Another resident, 81-year-old Ellen Mahoney Simmonds, died April 6, 2020, after she and her husband of six decades, Tom Simmonds, both contracted the virus.

Activities were halted and then shifted to virtual. Communal dining was put on hold and meals were delivered directly to rooms and apartments. Staff members picked up groceries and prescriptions for residents. People were asked to stay in their apartments except to go for walks outside.

OceanView blocked off Blueberry Lane, which runs through the campus, to protect residents from media and salespeople, Kibbin said. No visitors were allowed in the buildings. As more cases were reported, OceanView staff tried to be as transparent as possible with residents while also protecting people's privacy, Kibbin said.

"We were the epicenter at the beginning. It was scary. It was awful," said Kubeck, 83. "It's terrible when you walk down the hall and people move away from you."

Sally Dunning, who lives in a cottage on the sprawling 80-acre campus, said residents and staff took the pandemic and safety measures seriously from the beginning.

"We were all aware this is serious and very dangerous for us," Sally Dunning said. "It felt very real because of the deaths."

Marta Bent, who lives in the Blueberry Commons and is about to turn 88, said she appreciated the nearly daily updates from the OceanView staff about cases. Staff also delivered special meals to their rooms at holidays, including champagne for New Year's Eve.

Residents found creative ways to stay connected to friends, from socially distanced tea parties to Zoom happy hours to supper clubs. For 45 weeks in a row, Dunning and residents of five neighboring cottages met outside once a week for drinks. When it snowed, they moved into a garage with the doors open. Dunning also organized concerts in an underground parking garage where people could safely spread out.

When vaccines became available, OceanView head nurse Orlene DeMatteo arranged a clinic for residents who hadn't already received them off-site. Kibbin said all residents and staff in independent living are now vaccinated and 99 percent of residents and staff in the assisted-living facility are now fully vaccinated.

Dunning, who is 75 and was a test patient for the polio vaccine many years ago, was not surprised that people of her generation were eager to get their shots because they understand the importance of vaccinations to protect themselves and others.

"We've been through things enough to know if we stick together we'll get to the other side of it," she said. "This is a community where you care about your neighbors."

For Wakely, being fully vaccinated has allowed her to regularly visit her daughter's family and finally be back on the sidelines to watch her grandsons compete in lacrosse games and at track meets. She's also eager get back to watching live indoor musical performances at OceanView.

"We'll be there sitting as we always used to sit, not 6 feet apart but one chair right next to the other," she said.

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