How Senior Care Facilities Are Showing Resilience & Creativity for the Holidays

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COVID-19 has upended holiday plans for most, but for those living in nursing or assisted living facilities, the pandemic’s effects on the season are brought into an even sharper focus. As some of the most at-risk patients for the virus, senior citizens’ additional restrictions on visiting family members may in fact take a higher mental health toll than the majority of the population.

But most residents, families and staff are not letting stay-at-home mandates keep them from celebrating the holidays, albeit unconventionally. With stricter orders starting up again in many parts of the country, in-person visits have diminished or ceased altogether, as each new positive case in a facility typically requires a shift to solely digital interactions with non-residents. This frequent stop-and-start policy has certainly led to more Zoom and FaceTime calls, not just for catch-ups with relatives, but also as a way to gather for the holidays within the facility.

Rhoda Goldman Plaza, a San Francisco senior care facility with a majority Jewish population, hosts a Zoom candle lighting each evening during Hanukkah, in which all residents can view and participate from the comfort of their rooms. Emma Davis, Director of Programming, says the creative planning got into motion well before the winter season though. When one resident needed help caring for all the plants their family was sending, the staff set up a house plant hospital. Pretty soon, residents with gardening experience began to offer their services and help out.

“It seems like a small thing, but when you’re spending a lot more time in your apartment, you start to think, ‘What can I do to spruce up my space?’ And that’s just one thing we could do to help people care for their plants.”

Other creative social hours have emerged in the wake of quarantine, and while employees and residents have largely acclimated, it still requires extra precautions and duties, particularly on the part of staff.

“It’s hard, because there’s a lot of fear. As staff members, we are getting tested every other week, but you always have this fear that you have it. But we are just working together to make sure we have proper PPE and providing enough information. We are taking extra precautions to give everyone peace of mind,” says Alex Pham, director of Sales & Marketing at Sagebrook Senior Living. The San Francisco-based facility has currently ceased in-person visits, but a larger staff this year means that they’re able to make sure that holiday events, including socially distant Christmas dinners, are a bit more intimate.

And despite the inability to gather for an annual holiday party, Rhoda Goldman staff are still showing their gratitude for one another in the form of a staff appreciation week, consisting of free meals, silly work attire and more.

The spread of COVID-19 at nursing and assisted living facilities across the country has been notoriously rampant. As of November, 2 in 5 COVID-19 deaths in the US occurred in nursing or long-term care facilities and have accounted for 6% of total cases. In addition to losing friends and neighbors to COVID, many older residents are particularly susceptible to the health effects of loneliness, such as increased risks of dementia, heart disease and stroke.

But according to Davis, family members and residents have been particularly resilient and have also been supportive of the sacrifices being made.

“Traditions are a big part of our community, so it’s really hard when we can’t celebrate those traditions in the same way. For me, I was trying to come up with ways to still make the holidays special and meaningful, even though we can’t have the same traditions,” she said.

“The most rewarding thing is the appreciation from the family members and residents. So many have expressed gratitude for what the staff is doing.”