The COVID-19 crisis and senior living: an insider’s perspective

March 17, 2021 12:02 am

Beth Sholom, a senior living center in Henrico. (NBC12)

By Morris S. Funk

The pandemic has made this past year unlike any other at Beth Sholom, a senior living center in Henrico.

In late February, it seemed we were facing a typical long-term care viral threat, but I could not shake the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that this was going to be much bigger. In the early, there was so little information available, making it difficult to anticipate and prepare for the reality of what was coming. We were one of the first senior living communities in our area to lock down, and like so many others in our industry, we faced extraordinary daily challenges and heartbreaking losses.

Here is our story.

Our frontline staff put themselves and their families at risk every day simply by coming to work. Once the March lockdown was in place, many of our staff found it difficult to meet the challenges of working and managing their families. When schools closed, they scrambled to find ways to address the needs of their children while continuing to work. Daily, our employees faced the fear of bringing the virus — which was not understood — home to their family.

Our employees faced rapid and drastic changes to their customary work environment. Beginning in March with the stay-at-home order, our administrative employees were required to work from home. Equipping their home offices took considerable effort, expense and time. Our nursing, culinary, housekeeping, life enrichment/activities and rehabilitation staff were essential and rose to the task of maintaining their high standards in the most difficult circumstances.

Infection-control protocols were continually changing and evolving. Because the federal and local health officials were literally winging it, we received new guidance and required protocols daily. We would comply and the next day sent in another direction. It was quite a challenge to try to educate a campus of workers in important new requirements when they could not assemble in a group for formal instruction.

The demand for transparency had never been higher, new communication methods for staff and family had to be adapted to this new way of life. We held online educational sessions for staff, sent work-related emails to staff’s personal accounts, added an information phone line for family members, posted almost daily updates to our website, increased health-related signage, held all staff meetings via conference and video calling.

Personal Protective Equipment became another challenge. I could never have imagined a world where PPE was in limited supply. We necessarily paid ridiculously high prices in order to keep the community stocked with even the most common items such as toilet paper, paper towels, hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes. When supplies were unavailable, we improvised. We made our own hand sanitizer; found cleaners and ponchos at the dollar stores; and we used garbage bags when our supply of gowns dwindled to zero. PPE was so expensive that I thought it would break us financially, but it was all the other costs that followed, like overtime, hero pay and lost revenue, that would have an even greater effect on our community’s financial health.

We faced daily staffing issues due to illness, quarantine, lack of child care or just plain fear of coming to work. Like all senior care communities in our area, we had to turn to agency staffing for temporary nursing personnel. Due to the shortage of agency staffing and the perceived risk of caring for a COVID-19 patient, we were required to pay premium rates which far exceeded the pre-pandemic rates for these same workers. Despite the dedication of these temporary workers, the constantly rotating agency staff was difficult on our residents and our own staff.

The pandemic has led to deficits that greatly impacted our financial stability. Our occupancy rates fell drastically. The public lost confidence in our industry as a result of the nationwide outbreaks in, and the constant bombardment of negative press about, senior living facilities.

The reduction in our occupancy and increased expense for staffing and PPE was unexpected and therefore not addressed in our short term and long-term financial planning. Though it has been a year, the decline in occupancy and financial pressure has not abated.

One of the most devastating consequences of the pandemic was that our residents could not visit with their families, interact with each another or engage in the many group activities offered in our community. Quite simply, our residents could no longer enjoy the active, engaging lifestyle that brought them to Beth Sholom. Their families could not comfort them through the dark times. One of our residents, a Holocaust survivor, described the isolation by saying, “Once again, I found myself incarcerated through no fault of my own.” The makeshift barriers and outdoor visitation, though the best options at the time, were no substitute for the hug or kiss of a loved one or friends.

With the cancellation of many daily resident activities and restricted access to employees, vendors and visitors, the energy that made our community so vibrant and lively, was greatly diminished. The few of us on the administrative team who did come to work daily could not safely interact with our frontline staff — we had to support them from afar. Most of the time, it felt as though we were on an island. It was beyond eerie.

But from darkness, comes light.

The world was certainly right to celebrate our health care workers. The team at Beth Sholom put forth a Herculean effort to care for our residents while finding innovative ways to keep them safely engaged and connected. Each day, our employees put themselves and their families at risk, endured difficult conditions and worked exhaustive hours — yet their commitment to Beth Sholom and its residents never wavered.

Our residents’ families, Board of Trustees and community provided tremendous support. They treated staff to frequent catered meals. They raised money to purchase iPads for our residents’ virtual visits and to buy gifts for staff. They organized parades, drive-bys and other special salutes to show support and appreciation for all the hard work and sacrifice of staff during this trying time.

The overwhelming support reminds us that, especially in times of crisis, we can count on their help and generosity.

There is a new focus on senior living caregivers, which I am hopeful will help bring about systemic changes in the long-term care industry. We must find the resources needed to enhance their wages, education and work experiences. Our employees are truly heroes. They worked tirelessly and selflessly giving our residents the best possible care during this awful pandemic. The long-term care workforce has long been underrated and unappreciated by many. Hopefully, a perception shift will result from this tragic experience and lead to renewed appreciation for our long-term care employees.

Though the pandemic has been a true test for our culture, it has left us with many reasons to be optimistic about our future as we imagine a post-COVID world. By implementing new technologies and enhanced infection-control, embracing transparency and aligning communication strategies and discovering innovative ways to safely engage our residents, the pandemic has led to the strengthening of our operations and has created new opportunities. I believe the changes will further ensure the health, safety and well-being of our residents and staff.

Our primary focus is now on administering vaccines to residents and staff, giving us hope that we are turning the corner on this devastating pandemic. I cannot imagine that we will ever return to our pre pandemic ways and I believe that is a good thing.

The challenges we faced and the lessons we learned have provided us, and the senior living industry in general, with a unique opportunity to reinvent ourselves and be stronger for the future.

Morris S. Funk is president and chief executive officer of Beth Sholom Senior Living in Henrico.

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