Marian and her husband, Omer, communicate with family and visitors through their window at Montello Manor in Lewiston. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

AUBURN — Outdoor access to the patios at Schooner Estates are blocked in response to the COVID-19 crisis, but a resident recently found a creative way to use it responsibly.

The resident relaxed on a lawn chair while a family member, who had brought their own lawn chair from home, sat about 20 feet away. They took advantage of the time together, but kept a distance.

In the age of coronavirus, local nursing homes and retirement communities have been forced to change the way residents communicate with family members, and even their own nursing home neighbors.

Because the population has been deemed the most at-risk from COVID-19, all senior congregate care facilities in Maine are now closed to visitors. Inside most facilities, there are no more community meals or events.

To beat isolation and loneliness, retirement home officials say they are purchasing tablets and setting up video calls on FaceTime or Zoom. They’re also seeing some creativity from family members.

“We’ve seen window conversations where people will talk over the phone and look at each other through the window,” said John Rice, director of operations at Schooner Estates.

Rice said maintenance workers have been keeping a close eye on what’s happening on weekends when limited staff is on site. One recently spoke with a man who had parked his truck in the rear of the building. When approached, he pointed up to the second floor and said he was talking to his mother on the phone.

Alma, left, and Anita communicate with family and visitors through their window at Montello Manor in Lewiston. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Rice said all the Schooner Estates families have been understanding regarding the measures taken to keep the coronavirus out of the facility. But, he said, preventing isolation for its residents is now more difficult.

Schooner Estates prides itself on its community activities like exercise classes, music and bingo, none of which are occurring these days. Staff is taking meals directly to the rooms of each of its roughly 170 residents.

“It’s one thing when we look at this as combating a virus, but the most difficult part of the job is communicating with families and the residents and making sure they don’t feel isolated,” he said.

Schooner Estates purchased five Kindle Fires to be used by residents for video calls. He said a lot of residents are already set up with smartphones or laptop computers for communicating with family.

Rice also conducts updates for residents several times a week using an in-house TV channel.

At Montello Manor and Montello Commons in Lewiston, Kathy Attwood, executive director of elder services, said like most facilities, they have begun using videoconferencing apps such as FaceTime and Skype.

She said because Montello is a single-story building, families have been speaking to one another through the windows.

“Some families have decorated the outside of the windows so their loved ones have something positive to look at,” she said.

Attwood said a few residents have begun pen pal relationships, including a few who write to a former resident’s grandchildren.

“Overall we have had a very positive response from both residents and families,” she said. “We appreciate how difficult this is for both residents and families and are thankful they understand we are just trying to keep their loved one safe.”

At d’Youville Pavilion, run by St. Mary’s Health System in Lewiston, President Philip Hickey said Thursday that residents are doing many of the same things. The organization purchased additional iPads, and staff brings them to residents who don’t have smartphones so they can make video calls to family.

He said he’s also seen family members waving to residents from the parking lot.

Hickey said d’Youville was among the first to close its doors to visitors, prior to federal and state requirements for nursing homes. He said it occurred on March 12 “just to get ahead of all this.”

“Our residents and staff have all been very healthy,” he said.

As the crisis unfolds, Rice said central Maine nursing homes have been supporting each other, and as members of the Maine Healthcare Association, regularly brainstorm together. They’ve also been in regular contact with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention through Zoom conferences.

Calls to Marshwood Center, a rehab and nursing home in Lewiston, were not returned.

According to Genesis HealthCare, which owns Marshwood, all affiliated centers are also restricting visitation.

A recent statement on its website says staff at Genesis-affiliated centers have noticed many families attempting to visit with loved ones through windows.

“While well intended, this may be unsettling for many of our patients and residents,” the statement said. “As a more effective solution, we have implemented the ability for you to perform video chats with your loved ones using Zoom.”


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