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Over the past 14 years, William Mills, MD, now the senior vice president of medical affairs at BrightSpring Health Services, has been on more than 20,000 senior living visits.

During that time, he has observed communities contending with a variety of severe circumstances affecting residents and staff. But he’s never witnessed one like the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is clearly the most challenging crisis that we’ve ever seen for senior living,” Mills says.

Unsurprisingly, the crisis is straining senior living front-line workers to alarming degrees, putting unprecedented pressure on their mental health. Mills says senior living providers are seeing heightened anxiety, grief, and stress among their team members, especially those working in communities with high rates of infection.

In response, providers are ramping up their efforts to tend to the mental well-being of their workers and to ensure that employees have access to the resources they need.

A change that’s here to stay

Experts believe the new emphasis on mental health for senior living workers will not fade when the pandemic does, but instead will lead to an enduring, strengthened appreciation for the importance of resources that help workers tend to their emotional lives—a new normal for employee mental health.

“Senior living leaders must recognize the full scope of stress for our team members and provide layers and options for support,” says Debra Westeen, vice president of human resources, Christian Living Communities and Cappella Living Solutions (CLC-Cappella). “Each person will experience stress, grief, and trauma differently. Having a variety of support options will be key.”

A heightening of challenges

The sources of stress for senior living front-line workers are clear. Christine M. Stempel, a registered nurse and senior director of quality and education at HHHunt Senior Living/Spring Arbor Senior Living, says senior living team members “have to deal every day with all the worries and concerns and fears that the senior residents are expressing, in addition to also trying to be emotional support for all residents who are restricted from having visitors. If they are working in a community with COVID-positive cases, they have added worry and work challenges around [personal protective equipment] and isolation requirements.”

Westeen says CLC-Cappella team members “care deeply” for their residents, and any illness causes stress and worry. When a resident dies, they grieve.

Wendy McCray, PhD, a psychologist with WellQor senior behavioral health service providers, says another major stressor is employees’ concern about exposing residents to COVID-19 or bringing the illness home to their families.

“The stakes are very high on several fronts,” she says.

In their essential role, Mills says, staff members can become targets of anxieties, absorbing concerns from residents and family members about visitor restrictions and other new limits.

“People have been extraordinarily cautious over the past two to three months, and I think that environment of continual caution can really drive a lot of the anxiety and stress that we’ve seen,” Mills says.

Meanwhile, Stempel says, workers also may be wrestling with personal issues such as childcare challenges or an unemployed family member or roommate. To avoid possibly exposing others to the virus, they may face restricted contact with their normal support systems, social circle, or significant other.


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