Celebrating Cinco de Mayo at Clover Health Care in Auburn recently. Jim Parker photo

John Rice, director of operations at Schooner Estates in Auburn, addresses the residents during a new regular live broadcast. Social distancing has created a new normal for recreational programming at the senior living community. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Every Friday, if the weather is good, John Rice heads out to the streets with his smartphone camera, a microphone and a spirit of adventure. 

Rice, director of operations at Schooner Estates in Auburn, has taken on this second gig as street reporter, not for fame or for riches, but in hopes of keeping the men and women who live at Schooner entertained. 

Sometimes, you’ve just got to improvise. 

“The last three Fridays, I have gone out on the street, onto Stetson Road because they’re finally redoing that road. I do a remote broadcast from the street, literally, and give them a tour,” Rice said. “That way, I’m able to provide the whole outside, live experience. It gives them a sense of being out and about. Because they don’t get to walk up Stetson road. They don’t get to see these kinds of things.” 

Other days, Rice takes his camera equipment out to the new building recently constructed on the Schooner grounds. 

“I’m going to do a live tour of the new building so they can see what it looks like,” Rice said. “I’ll go to different parts of the campus so I can show them different things kind of behind the scenes. That kind of gives them a sense of being out and about. And when it’s live, they’ll talk with the staff and engage with them just like they’re used to.” 

Rice has a captive audience these days. The men and women who live in assisted living settings, like everyone else, have found themselves cooped up, unable to do some of the things they enjoy doing because of the limitations that come with COVID-19. 

No more in-person visits with family and friends. No more hanging out in tight circles with other residents. No more hugs or kisses on the forehead to soothe the pains of a tough day. 

For the people who run Schooner and places like it, the trick was to adapt quickly, before restlessness and boredom could set in; to provide safer means of entertainment for seniors who have long hours that need to be filled. 

“When the switch was turned off to stop all congregating here at Schooner Estates, we immediately started to re-think how to do things differently,” said Mark Prevost, resident services director there. “Our tenants have been through so much in their lifetime, this is just another blip on the screen.” 

At Clover Health Care in Auburn, residents created posters to thank local firefighters. Jim Parker photo

WALK IT OFF 

And oh, the creative ways that the elderly facilities have adapted — and even thrived — as the COVID crisis grinds on. 

At Clover Health Care, also in Auburn, residents go off on destination walks, have socially distanced dance parties, learn to use Facetime and Zoom so they can have face-to-face conversations with loved ones, engage in a lively game they call “Phone-a-Friend,” a concept that was initiated by family of Clover residents. 

It’s possible, when you get right down to it, that at Clover, residents might complain that they have TOO much to do. 

“From the beginning, our primary focus has been to keep people moving,” said Donna Rousseau, director of Admissions and Activities. “Sedentary lifestyle brings its own set of problems without the complication of COVID-19. Overall deconditioning leads to falls, onset  of pneumonia and can trigger the exacerbation of other underlying conditions as well. So walking has been a priority activity for all residents. We have taken residents, one by one, gloved and masked, for walks inside and outside the Clover community. If they have roommates, we have taken them out together.” 

Not everyone, as it happens, wants to go on an ordinary walk. Why go through the pain and strain of it, they seem to think, when one could just sit in front of a window and gaze out at the beleaguered world? 

The people of Clover, with roughly 280 residents, found a way to tempt those people out of their seats. 

“We have begun ‘destination walks’ to entice those residents who resist the suggestion of walking,” said Rousseau. “Resident artwork displays and card displays courtesy of the community are one such destination. Setting up an ice stand to which residents walk to get a treat is another. The activity staff is currently working on scavenger hunts, one focusing on getting to know your neighbors whereby the residents are given a list of neighbors/staff and fun facts about each of them. The resident, while on their walk, checks the facts posted outside each participant’s apartment/office and makes his or her matches. The person with the most correctly matched in the hunt wins a prize. It is just a fun way of getting people out and moving, but with a purpose.” 

Residents at Clover Health Care are learning to use technology to stay in touch with loved ones during the COVID-19 crisis. Jim Parker photo

“We have also brought dance ‘parties’ to rooms,” Rousseau said, “handing out treats while playing music and singing along with the residents. We are working on expanding this idea to an outside travelling dance party where we set speakers up in the courtyards (one of our activity coordinators used to be a DJ), play music and line dance for residents who can view from their apartments. This will require specific days and times to reach all the different areas of our building.” 

In between all that, the residents keep busy with a variety of activities. Socially distant game of bridge, anyone? A little gardening? 

Recently, residents and staff worked together to create posters to thank the local fire department for their service. The result was a whole lot of poster boards festooned with pictures of fire trucks, flags, local landmarks. And by the time the residents were done putting it all together, it was probably time for another walk. 

Tired yet? 

TRAVELING NACHOS AND VIRTUAL REALITY 

At places like St. Mary’s d’Youville Pavilion in Lewiston, staff share photos on social media to let the outside world know what’s going on within their walls. There are images of residents, properly distanced, gardening on the nursing home grounds. Of nurses “dancing” with tenants confined to wheelchairs. Of staffers engaging residents in one-on-one games such as “True or False Traveling Trivia,” or serving them “Traveling Nachos” while wearing masks and sombreros.  

At Clover Health Care in Auburn residents are able to garden on the grounds during the COVID-19 crisis. Jim Parker photo

At the Marshwood Center, photos are posted of families positioned outside the Lewiston building, homemade signs in hand, to greet their loved ones inside from safe distances. In one photo, Marshwood residents pose in decorative homemade masks donated by a local business and the family of a Marshwood employee. 

At The Chapman House in Auburn, care and recreation for the 30 elderly residents there in the time of COVID is described this way:

“The Chapman House has a large fenced-in outdoors living area with safe paths to walk on, beautiful flowers and trees. With places to sit and enjoy the fresh air. A monthly schedule of various activities is given to each resident so that she may participate in any or all, according to her interests, while social distancing from each other. There are movies, games, like Bingo, exercise, etc.

“The Chapman House also offers other activities as well, including sing-a-longs, painting, happy hours, visits from a puppy and now visits with families through Zoom. For Mother’s Day we asked that family members drop off posters wishing all residents Happy Mother’s Day. Those posters as well as some made by our staff members were hung in our garden.”

At Russell Park Rehabilitation and Living Center in Lewiston, center leaders post photos and updates on Facebook. Like everywhere else, at Russell Park the trick is to find that balance between safety and a sense of well-being among their residents. 

“We’re keeping everyone as safe as we can, we’re staying engaged, and remaining abreast of all things COVID,” according to a recent post. “As of now, we remain COVID-free. This is quite the process but am pleased to report things are going very well under these unprecedented circumstances. We’ve been continuing ‘socially distanced’ small group activities, nail care and lotion-up, virtual reality events (roller coaster rides, mountain climbing, sky-diving and Jurassic Park). Activities and other staff have done some shopping for things residents want or need. We’ve changed the vending machines to a mobile vending cart, had ‘mobile social hours,’ festive dress days, one-on-one visits, craft times, Bingo, friend’s visits, men’s evening socials and puzzle-making to name some activities we’ve been doing to stay busy.” 

Schooner Estates has instituted some new socially distanced activities for residents. A “yes or no” flip card is displayed on each residents door to indicate if they would like to participate. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

TOUR THE BRITISH ISLES? OR HEAD TO THE STORE? 

On the scenic outskirts of Auburn, a bus is seen rolling along the winding roads, moving slowly so that the folks inside can get a good look at the wide world around them. 

In a time when so many people insist on staying home, it’s an odd sight to see a tour bus on the move, but this bus, from the Schooner Estates fleet, is ever-mindful of the safety recommendations as they take their tenants on tour. 

“We just started to roll this out,” said Rice. “Now mind you, it’s a 13-passenger bus that had like, five people on it. Which was great. We just had the epiphany and thought: We can spread people out on the bus and they can wear masks. Let’s get them out and get them at least driving around town. We can respect all the boundaries. It would mean a lot for people to be able to go out and just experience the world again. 

“It’s going to take a little bit to cycle through people,” Rice said. “There are quite a few people that are want to get out. This was just the first expedition.” 

For those who don’t want to go off on a bus, there are plenty of options left back on the Schooner home front. Those folks can take tours of far-off canyons, exotic islands or scenic locations around New England.  

Wait, what? 

The older folks aren’t bundling up and being shuffled off for long trips to fancy locations. They’re able to take in all that scenery thanks to online content and Schooner TV — kind of a cable access station that Schooner runs for its tenants. 

“It will be like a drone tour of the British Isles or something,” Rice said. “There are all these different nature flyovers and we schedule these every week, so there will be these little nature escapes and it’s calm and soothing.” 

Learning new technology to stay in touch with loved ones at Clover Health Care in Auburn. Jim Parker photo

When it comes to keeping residents entertained, Schooner TV has come in handy in all sorts of ways. 

“We know there’s a lot of content on regular TV but it’s all getting kind of stale,” Rice said, “so we’re inserting programs that we know they really like. It’s just really comforting and calming in a lot of ways.” 

According to Prevost, they also filmed their resident exercise leader so they can run exercise classes for residents five days a week. They can also pipe in music from the old days or just announce new developments or changes within the facility. They run a series of lectures to replicate the popular “senior college,” which fell by the way when COVID came along. 

At Schooner, with its 105 apartments, they seem to realize that in stressful times, people tend to crave what is familiar. And what is more familiar, to the average person, than going out to pick up a few odds and ends at the store? 

That’s right. Schooner has created space for a market so that residents can get what they need, safely, but also with a sense of autonomy. 

“There’s a schedule that people come down (to the market),” Rice said. “There’s a waiting line for people to go in and we only let two people in at a time. And then they do the whole transaction there. Mind you, they can put it on their account, but they also like to pay with money. It’s like there’s that process that we may take for granted — there’s nothing like picking up something that you need and pulling your wallet out and handing over cash. It feels very normal, if you will.” 

Like Clover, the people of Schooner keep the residents occupied with activities that both engage their minds and offer rewards. 

“We deliver stuff to their mailboxes just about every day,” said Rice. “In the apartments and studios, we’ll do a puzzle. So, say we hand you the puzzle on Monday, you complete it by Tuesday or Wednesday and then we’ll draw from the correct puzzle winners. We’ll pick a winner and so you win a hot fudge sundae or whatever.” 

Schooner staff has played music for six to eight residents sitting at safe distances around a large room. Some staffers sing to residents or just provide them with one-on-one visits. 

At Clover Health Care in Auburn, residents created posters to thank their local fire department for their services. Jim Parker photo

Unless, of course, that particular resident isn’t up for it that day. 

“We’ve given them a sign with a little magnetic holder on it, and it says either ‘yes’ or ‘no,'” Rice said. “So when they know it’s coming up, they’ll put the sign on there and it’s either ‘Yes, you can knock on my door’ or ‘No, I’m not interested.’ We had actually heard that we were knocking on the doors too much. We were literally giving them too much to do.” 

HANGIN’ TOUGH 

With all that going on — the scavenger hunts, drone tours, dance parties, hallway Bingo games and rides about town — what the older folks still seem to crave the most is plain old human interaction. Technology they might have ignored or scoffed at two months ago is suddenly a sanity-saving portal to the outside world. 

“We have played Skyped/Zoomed local education events and entertainment by folks that used to come into Schooner Estates to present the program,” said Prevost. “Zoom, Duo, Skype and Facetime have been a fun and funny way for our tenants to stay in touch with their family all over the world. We have even Facetimed tenants together if they were uncomfortable meeting in person.” 

“Probably the most popular activity, as with most communities like ours, has been the Facetiming and Zooming with families who are worried and missing their loved ones,” said Rousseau, at Clover. “Thank goodness for technology and people who know how to use it. That makes all this possible! Between iPads, laptops, and personal phones, we are getting these visits done one at a time. Unfortunately,  we discontinued our window visits from earlier in compliance with the governor’s request for people to stay at home. It was not a popular decision but a necessary one. Consequently, the Facetiming and Zoom have been  lifelines to our families.” 

It’s tough times, for sure, and there’s no real end in sight. According to Rice, at Schooner, it’s a day-to-day kind of thing. Each day, new developments are assessed and, if need be, changes are put in place. 

It’s nothing really new for these settings, Rice says. There are always colds and flus going around, and they have to adapt. New laws, regulations or guidelines pertaining to elderly housing are put in place and they have to adjust. 

John Rice, director of operations at Schooner Estates, does a remote broadcast from the street to residents of Schooner. “It gives them a sense of being out and about,” Rice says. Submitted photo

“We live in a constant state of flux,” Rice said. “That’s not negative. It’s just to say that by and large, you’ve got to be progressive. The rules change all the time. These are extenuating circumstances, for sure. But honestly, this is the kind of environment from a response reactiveness that we have done forever and ever. There’s a myriad of things that we come across time and time again and we have to adapt. Our job is to make life as normal for people as possible. That is this industry. This industry evolves all the time. There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes that people don’t necessarily understand.” 

And the old folks themselves? Well, who knows more about adapting, adjusting and surviving than men and women who have been around for seven decades. Or eight, or nine or 10? 

“Many of these folks have been on this earth for 80 to 100 years,” said Rousseau, summing it up cleanly. “They’ve seen wars, depressions and hard times before. And while they seem to appreciate everything we are doing to keep them safe, comfortable, and connected, they are the living examples of how to ‘hang tough.’ We could stand to learn a thing or two from them.” 


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