On warm spring days, Carol Cashwell likes to pick up her mom from Trinity Elms Assisted Living in Clemmons for a change of scenery, fresh air and family time.
“We like to take her to our house, for her to have that memory,” said Cashwell of Davie County. “And one of her favorite things to do is tell us she wants a hot dog or barbecue. So we always make sure we do that.”
Such family visits, so important for Cashwell’s mom, and other older adults, have been put on pause. Trinity Elms and other assisted living homes across the country have adopted stringent measures to protect residents from exposure to the new coronavirus, which is particularly dangerous for people 65 and older. Eight of 10 deaths in the United States from Covid-19 have been adults over 65, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Cashwell and her sister try to visit their mother, Sue Ellis, at least three times a week. Ellis, 87, has vascular dementia, and though she recognizes her daughters when she sees them, her memory of them appears to erase once they leave.
“Basically, these visits are for us,” Cashwell said. “It’s been very emotional, not being able to see her.”
Assisted living homes and organizations that serve senior citizens are changing the way they serve this vulnerable population, trying to ensure that older adults stay safe while providing them with the socialization and activities that are such a meaningful part of their lives.
Dr. Franklin Watkins, an associate professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Health, said that prolonged social isolation can lead to depression, loss of sleep and other issues that can weaken immunity.
“It’s going to be incredibly important,” Watkins said of reaching out to older adults. “We know social connectedness is important for anybody but definitely for older adults.”
At Trinity Elms’ assisted living and memory care units, visitors have been restricted for about two weeks. That means no life-enrichment activities such as concerts, art instruction, bingo and pet parades, much less visits from clergy, friends and family.
In response, staff members, all of whom are screened before entering the buildings, are stretching beyond their job descriptions to keep residents engaged, said Tess McMullen, the administrator at Trinity Elms.
“We have staff who have turned into activities people and beauticians. We are changing our roles and stepping out of our comfort zones and doing individual activities with them like art projects and having a reminiscing hour where we talk with them one-on-one for an hour,” McMullen said.
Some group activities, limited to 10 people, are still taking place, including fitness classes. But group dining another important for socialization, has been eliminated and meals are now delivered to individual rooms.
Several assisted living homes are using technology to keep their residents in touch with family, teaching them how to use FaceTime and other video chat services.
The staff at Arbor Acres has been making extensive use of technology, using an in-house TV channel to broadcast such things as deep breathing lessons and cooking demonstrations; and an iPad app that shares meditations and prayers for residents of its independent living section.
People who live in this section of Arbor Acres’ campus may still leave but most visitors are stopped at the front gate.
“They’re getting together in small groups on their own to play pickle ball and pool, but there’s no congregating in the dining room and there’s no activities on the schedule,” said Alice Smith, the Director of Wellness for Arbor Acres’ independent living section.
Winnborn and Chan Chandler, both in their 70s, are abiding by recommendations to go out as little as possible.
“We’re all being calm. We know what’s going on and we’re glad we’re here,” Winnborn said. “We’re fine.”
The Chandlers have lived in Arbor Acres since 2011.
In normal times, they’d eat out a few times each week and watch their granddaughter play on her sports team. Last week, they drove past their daughter’s house to deliver St. Patrick’s Day cookies to their grandchildren, cracking the window to hand them off.
“We had a sighting,” Winnborn said, laughing. “It’s a little different but we talk to them everyday.”
Chan goes out occasionally but is cautious, walking in and out of stores as soon as he gets what he needs and making sure to keep six feet from others. He and his wife are tracking the virus but not dwelling on their restrictions.
The other day, he was planning on meeting up with some guys to play croquet. They planned to bump elbows and if anyone has a cough? “I guarantee we would all say, ‘Let’s do it another time,’” Chan said.
Local agencies that serve senior citizens, including the Shepherd’s Center and Senior Services, have had to adapt to social distancing recommendations. The Shepherds Center, which serves about 6,000 older adults, had to end its popular activities including Tai Chi, bridge and book clubs.
However, it is continuing to provide transportation to clients who need cancer treatments and dialysis. It is also still offering emergency home repairs.
Sam Matthews, the director of the Shepherd’s Center, said his organization is sensitive to the social isolation that many older adults feel.
“This will exacerbate that,” he said. “We’re encouraging our volunteers who have been providing services like transportation and home repairs to reach out verbally and call some of these folks and check on their welfare.”
Matthews is most concerned about older adults who live alone and depend on the Shepherd’s Center for transportation to get food. About 2,500 of the 6,000 people the agency serves are in vulnerable positions, he said.
“Basically, we need a sort of neighborhood watch, a neighborly watch,” Matthews said. “If you have an elderly person nearby, call them or ring their door bell, check if their mail or papers are building up.”
Senior Services, which operates Meals on Wheels, also serves a vulnerable population, delivering about 1,200 hot meals each day in Forsyth County.
“One of the things we consistently say is that the food is important but that human connection is probably more important than the food itself. And that part of the program, I’m certain, is going to be altered,” said T. Lee Covington, the president and CEO of Senior Services.
For the last two weeks, delivery volunteers left the food on the porch or quickly handed off the meals, skipping much of the social interaction that is so important. But the delivery of daily hot meals will end Friday. The organization announced on Thursday that after Friday it will deliver five frozen meals once a week to its clients to avoid exposure to the coronavirus.
Senior Services has ramped up its calls to senior citizens in their program who may be suffering from loneliness. The organization, Covington said, is always looking for volunteers in its Connections program, which asks folks to call senior citizens. Once social distancing recommendations are removed, volunteers are asked to visit in person.
Originally published on the Winston-Salem Journal