Getting creative with social distancing

by Michael Ceraso  |

Longtime Claremonter Jil Stark would ordinarily be speaking in front of chairs filled with residents hungry for new information, but these are not normal times with the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, or COVID-19.

California residents are under lockdown to slow the person-to-person spread of the virus. 

Ms. Stark, 83, stood behind the wooden carved podium recently at Mt. San Antonio Gardens, where she lives with her husband Jack, adjusted the microphone, and looked directly across an auditorium filled with empty chairs to see a cameraman giving her an enthusiastic thumbs up.

That was Ms. Stark’s cue that her book review was live-streaming for a homebound audience. 

“There were no audience questions about what I was talking about,” said Ms. Stark. “People like to talk among themselves, and they usually pick up on stuff that I may not that keeps the conversation lively and going. It was a weird feeling for sure.”

While social distancing has many physically separated, it does not mean residents are alone during this mass lockdown. 

“Normally, 40 to 45 people attend. What I learned was at least 70 homes were watching. After my book review, there were people who reached out to me I barely know. Remember, there are over 500 residents who live here,” said Ms. Stark. 

These unprecedented times have created a demanding situation for senior living administrators, department coordinators, and nurses to not only protect residents from an invisible contagion—this includes daily coronavirus symptom screenings for staffers—but from the perils of isolation and loneliness that inherently come from a mass lockdown. 

Senior living communities have relied on informational technologies and the online tools produced to keep residents updated and feeling less secluded. 

Online systems are rapidly coming together to deliver hardcopy books to avid readers who prefer paper to Kindle. Residents are logging-in to their campus portals to receive COVID-19 updates from the state government and senior living administrators, and skilled nurses are teaching residents to use neighbor-to-neighbor programs on tablets to keep in touch with friends and family. 

Claremont Manor CEO Greg Hirst expressed surprise noting how quickly residents embraced technologies they never adopted before.

“These conditions have made some residents more comfortable to enjoy technology,” Mr. Hirst said. He said some members of the community were less likely to use interactive tools like iPhone FaceTime, Skype, Google Hangout, or Zoom because their families live close by. 

These technologies have become extremely useful for spouses split between a care facility and independent living home to stay in constant contact with one another; or for the families to connect with their immune-compromised relatives who are feeling overwhelmed and anxious about COVID-19. 

Hillcrest Retirement Community quickly transformed its life enrichment programs to fit the needs of residents who were growing restless. After the aquatic and fitness centers were shut down, trainers created a YouTube page to run interactive boxing, yoga, hamstring stretches and high intensity interval training for residents to do in their homes. 

Hillcrest residents are not allowing their creative faculties to lie dormant either. They have introduced a creative writing contest called, “Create a Story.” The rules are simple: participants are to write a one-page story drawing inspiration from selected words. Not lost on irony, some of last week’s choices included the words “disinfected,” “spring,” “coronavirus” and “tenacious.” 

Staple Friday night programs at Hillcrest like Bingo are now held through Zoom, an online web platform that allows multiple people to have gatherings so people can interact from home through both voice and video streaming in real time.

At Pilgrim Place, the Abernethy Dining Hall is closed for the daily noontime dinner. Closing the central meeting spot for curious thinkers and lifelong explorers forced Pilgrim residents to reimagine safe ways to socialize. 

What has emerged is community members coordinating their trail walks for fresh air and light exercise with friends and family from six feet apart. Making new friends in their neighborhood, from a distance of course, is reshaping outdated town perceptions. 

“What I have seen from these conversations is that the perception of Pilgrim Place is exclusively religious. That we are mostly missionaries and former ministers,” said Butch Henderson. “I explain to them we are a value-based organization, and this changes the way they think about our community.”

None of these changes are possible without dedicated senior living staff, who are dealing with their own at-home circumstances that sometimes present personal challenges. However, they continue to deliver key services for their senior living residents. 

“Well, I’ve been reminded of the power of community, even though we can’t necessarily be physically together,” said Maureen Beith from Mt. San Antonio Gardens. “There is a very strong community here that has not been surprising, but it’s certainly been reinforced.”  

Catherine McIntosh recently visited her mother Marguerite McIntosh at the Gardens memory care center. The two enjoyed real life face time given the current restrictions—Marguerite waved to and shared a laugh with her daughter through her bedroom window while the two chatted on the phone.

And on a recent Sunday morning, a group of about 20 residents kept their distance safely outdoors to serenade neighbors and staff with classics like Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Oh, what a Beautiful Mornin’” and “American the Beautiful.” 

Not a bad way to start a day.  


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