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Last spring, a million older adults had to do what many of them had come to senior living to avoid: stay alone in their rooms. For safety reasons during the pandemic, group activities and outings were suddenly taken away. Isolation could have become a real threat to their well-being.

How could program directors keep people engaged under those circumstances? The pandemic created an urgent need for new ways of keeping residents connected when many existing models no longer worked.

Teamwork and creative thinking were key to getting everyone through it, especially during times of quarantine and careful social distancing.

Changing overnight

“We had to literally change our programming model overnight,” says Rachel Kaufman, activities director at Brandywine Living at Dresher Estates in eastern Pennsylvania. As soon as company leadership realized in March that they were facing a time residents might have to stay in their rooms or be isolated, the community formed a programming think tank. “We all got on a Zoom call and brainstormed, and literally overnight transitioned our programs.”

During the two months of careful social distancing, residents were presented with a full slate of reinterpreted activities. Kaufman, whose official title is “escapades producer,” visited their rooms each morning with an activity cart loaded with games, coloring books, puzzles, and books.

She returned in the afternoon with appetizers and drinks for happy hour. She led residents in socially distanced hallway activities such as exercise, bingo and flower arranging. Once a week, staff members dressed in costume to celebrate anything they could: Phillies gear for opening day, dog costumes for “the dog days of summer,” even Wizard of Oz characters.

The community also subscribed to the Philadelphia Orchestra and Philly Pops so they could livestream performances to residents’ rooms. “We did the absolute best we could to keep everyone as engaged and connected as possible,” Kaufman says.

Many of the methods and ideas adopted during the pandemic have proven themselves to be worth keeping long-term. This is especially true for technology. New uses were found for existing technologies. New technologies were adopted by communities looking for workable solutions to engagement challenges.

Commonwealth Senior Living found that its Eversound headphone system was ideal for helping residents hear better when their families came for window visits. The company also decided to try something completely new to them: virtual reality. They began using MYNDVR in October 2020 and plan to continue. It significantly improved motor skills and communication in memory care residents.

“It was one of the best features that we implemented during COVID,” says Paula Harder, VP of resident programming.

At Trilogy Health Services, the existing SeniorTV service filled a communication gap, broadcasting the community information channel to residents as well as to families via an app, enabling quick and easy updates of news. It also could livestream onsite events into resident rooms.

One of the highlights was a weekly staff talent show that one of the communities arranged to entertain residents, who could vote for their favorite performances.

Although Zoom was the king of pandemic technology, Kaufman found that distance learning and entertainment via Zoom were not successful in her community. What did work was using the platform to connect residents with family events they couldn’t attend in person, such as weddings and bar mitzvahs. They also communicated with family and friends through Zoom and FaceTime.

Person-centered activities

Some communities are turning to outside partnerships to expand their programming. Inspīr at Carnegie Hill is a new luxury assisted living community on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Before Inspīr opened in March 2021, it offered virtual programs for future residents and other older adults. Now that restrictions are easing, the focus is on programs that involve real-life human connection.

The community’s location gives it access to the outstanding resources available in New York City. Inspīr partners with groups like The Actors Fund, which provides performance professionals who create experiences around acting, storytelling, music, and dance. Laughter on Call offers stand-up performances as well as improvisation classes for staff and residents. Namaste Wellness, SPEAR Physical Therapy, and Iowa Sports come to Inspīr to teach a full schedule of exercise and mediation classes, perform physical and occupational therapy and even lifeguard the community swimming pool. Horticulture therapy classes are led by instructors from NYU.

Amanda Clears, associate director of resident experience at Inspīr, finds that taking a person-centered approach is the key to true engagement. “Instead of going with what’s worked in the past when it comes to programming and engagement opportunities, you have to really start with the person,” she says. “What are the individual goals of the person, what’s fulfilling for them?”

Activity staff at many communities are spending more one-on-one time with residents in their rooms. They’ve also had to take on tasks that were formerly off-limits.

Brandywine at Dresher lost about a third of its workforce at the beginning of the pandemic. Team members across the community had to pitch in and help each other no matter what their official job description may have been.

“There’s a more holistic approach now to programming and dining and to the building in general,” Kaufman says. “We’re all there for the same reason. We’re there to help the residents and do the best job that we can.”

Today’s activity directors must be even more resourceful and efficient in implementing programs. Conditions can change overnight. Tom Alaimo, VP of life enrichment and memory care at Trilogy, recently held interviews for a new member of the life enrichment support team. He asked questions that had not usually come up before. “Are they resilient? Are they tech-savvy? They have to be prepared to embrace this new role, and it’s an ever-changing role,” he says.

New challenges

As communities reopen, new challenges are emerging. How do we move forward in the face of constantly changing conditions? Should we enforce mandatory vaccination? If not, how do we set protocols for unvaccinated people? How can we re-engage residents who are concerned about leaving their apartments? And perhaps most challenging of all: How do we restore consumer faith in the senior living industry?

These are questions that for the most part don’t have firm answers yet. Every provider has to decide for itself what its priorities will be going forward.

Harder’s focus now, for instance, is to get Commonwealth’s residents back to a more normal way of life. Her plan is to use one-on-one interactions to build confidence among the more cautious while offering enticing outings and tours to get everyone back into the wider world safely.

Perhaps the only thing we can be sure of right now is the fact that the landscape of resident programming has changed. Some of these changes will be permanent, whether we like it or not.

“Change is happening, and sometimes you don’t even realize the change that’s taking place,” Alaimo says. “There are so many things we have to go back to and start to reconsider.”

RETHINKING COMMUNITY PROGRAMMING

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