The Journal Gazette
Monday, May 18, 2020 1:00 am

Loving dedication

Nursing home lockdowns bring out inventiveness of staff, residents alike

Beth McCord

I work for Lutheran Life Villages, a large nonprofit senior living organization in northeast Indiana. We have three campuses in Fort Wayne and one in Kendallville. We have been proactively dealing with coronavirus pandemic for more than 60 days.

On March 10, we made the decision to cancel our annual meeting celebration on the day it was to happen because we worried that a large gathering was not the smartest decision. Every day since then, our executive team has met three times a day, battling an invisible opponent to keep more than 500 staff members and 600 residents healthy. Our building administrators have worked seven days a week during this time.

I write this to offer a glimpse not only into our operations but what nursing homes across the region and country are dealing with. Luckily in Fort Wayne, we are blessed with great health systems and wonderful senior living communities. We are all in this fight together.

Visitors have been banned from our normally-vibrant campuses. Activities are limited to programming that can go on in resident rooms one on one or in the hallway while residents sit in their doorways. Residents have not had chapel service, community outings or music performances for 60 days. Our staff has been clad in full protective equipment, isolation gowns, N-95 masks, goggles and face shields for several weeks.

Operationally, Lutheran Life Villages has offered appreciation pay to every employee working and hazard pay to people working in the most exposed departments. Employees are assigned to certain neighborhoods to keep residents' contact with outsiders low. Sick leave policies have been amended to encourage employees to stay home if they are not feeling well. Every person who enters our building answers a questionnaire about their exposure to potentially infected people and has their temperature taken. Communication with staff and resident families has increased. Educational videos are being pushed out to staff every few days.

In response to these changes, staff have dug in, banded together and worked harder than ever. They plan special dress-up days to entertain the residents (and one another), they hold iPads and telephones so families can communicate with their loved ones, and they offer (gloved) hands to hold while residents are scared, lonely and dying. As positive COVID-19 results come back, they move residents to other areas of the buildings to try to keep uninfected residents safe. As a result of shortages of proper protective equipment, staff have creatively sourced the appropriate supplies that are needed.

Staff have cried, gone hungry and thirsty, worked extra hours, volunteered to work at different campuses and asked friends to give to the organization they not only work for but love. Our community has supported us more than ever: sewing masks, donating drinks and snacks, dropping off hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes, giving their hard-earned money so we can buy more protective equipment and iPads, and praying fervently for everyone we serve. Our families cheer us on and leave encouraging signs on our campus lawns. Positive responses are all over our social media posts. The support has been a beautiful outcome to this very hard pandemic.

We have had positive cases in two of our buildings, despite our diligent efforts to keep everyone healthy. I have been asked how the virus got into our buildings despite not allowing visitors. And we really don't know. Residents still need to go to dialysis treatments and other life-supporting doctors' appointments, so not everyone is completely isolated to our buildings. And yes, we have staff members who have tested positive. Many of the positive cases are symptom-free. No cough, no fever, no outward signs the person is carrying this potentially deadly virus. If a staff person infected a resident, I can confidently say that staff person would be devastated.

Now more than ever I can say that I know our employees love our residents like their own family. I can also say we have done everything we could think of to keep every person who is connected to our organization, residents and staff, safe. And it wasn't enough. This virus is incredibly contagious and disproportionately deadly for the people who live in our buildings. We couldn't stop it from invading our buildings and we have lost people that we love.

The good news is that we are far enough in this battle for people to be recovering. Residents who were COVID-19 positive are getting better, eating more and feeling stronger. Celebrations are happening (in full protective gear and socially distanced) when residents can move back to their room from the isolated areas.

We need our community to trust and support nursing home organizations. We need kind words and patience. We need people to continue to social distance and do everything in their power to stay healthy so our staff can be healthy to care for residents. We need affordable masks and isolation gowns to be available to purchase. And we need a vaccine.

As the state and country work to reopen, please don't forget that COVID-19 isn't going away. Nursing home staff will continue to come to work to try to keep the seniors in our care healthy. Nursing homes in our community will continue to entertain our residents and work with family members to keep everyone connected. We will sing, dance, pray and cry together and we will show up every day for the people in our care.

We need our community to believe in and support nursing homes. We truly are all in this together.

Beth McCord is director of philanthropy for Lutheran Life Villages.

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