Senior living recently made headlines when a Dallas senior living community quarantined two of its employees due to the scare of Ebola contraction.
The scare, while only a scare and not a contraction of the virus, required that the two employees at Dallas-based Windsor Senior Living were placed under quarantine last week because of their close association to Ebola victim Thomas Eric Duncan, according to reports.
Human immune defenses become weaker with age, and about 80% of adults aged 65 or older have at least one chronic health condition — making the threat of any communicable disease all the more dangerous, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Ebola, a rare and deadly disease caused by infection by one of the Ebola virus strains, is spread through direct contact or through bodily fluids of someone who has the virus.
In a letter from managers at Windsor Senior Living to residents and staff obtained by local media, the assisted living provider assured the community that Dallas County Health and Human Services has said that residents, staff members nor guests are at any risk for Ebola from the quarantined staff members. (Windsor Senior Living did not reply to SHN’s request for comment.)
As concern grows about the potential spread of the Ebola Virus Disease in the United States and abroad, senior living providers can take proactive steps to ease resident and staff concerns about the disease.
“Senior living is basically a congregate of housing,” says JoAnne Carlin, vice president of clinical risk services at Willis Senior Living Practice Group, a division of insurance broker Willis of North America. “A lot of individuals may live in their own [apartments or homes on campus] but come together for communal meals, activities, outings — they’re exposed to each other more than seniors in the average household.”
In addition, the number of guests and outside health staff coming and going throughout the year can also make the risk of becoming infected a looming concern.
Discussing what Ebola is — its causes and how it’s transmitted — and safety precautions with staff and residents are best practice proactive steps providers should take to ensure everyone’s wellbeing, Carlin advises.
“All senior living venues have regulations in place — even in independent living there are requirements for safety on a lot of levels,” Carlin says, noting that residents in senior living have access to health care professionals and wellness programs they might not have if living outside of a senior community. “Senior living provides a coordination of care and services.”
Communities can take steps to ensure they are protected and prepared against the deadly disease.
Host Information Sessions
Communicating with staff and residents about Ebola is crucial to ensuring that no one is frightened, or ignores important symptoms indicating illness.
“Education in the senior living community is going to help residents understand that the organization understands what is going on and that the organization is on top of it,” she says. “And give residents a chance to ask questions about what is concerning to them.”
Town hall-type meetings for residents and utilizing staff meetings to discuss the topic are ways to promote a healthy dialogue about the topic, she says, noting that such meetings are also an opportunity to remind those who are not feeling well, or are experiencing any symptoms, to speak up. And for staff, any symptoms of illness are a sign to stay home and contact a medical professional.
Oh, The Places You’ll Go — Find Out Where
Request to be informed about any employee or resident who travels to the areas where Ebola Virus is prevalent and/or if family members and visitors to the community have recently been in those areas.
“You can’t require them to tell you, but if the provider explains to staff and residents that it is important to prevent the disease, especially one as serious as Ebola, then that’s something to include in the informational meetings,” she says. “If someone has been visited from a part of the U.S. or west Africa where this is present, encourage them to let you know. Why? Because we want to be on the alert for flu-like symptoms.”
When In Doubt, Reach Out to Health Professionals
“One thing I always advise in communities is if in doubt call the local department of health,” she says, noting that some providers may be hesitant to reach out because health departments are the same agencies that inspect them and can issue citations. “See them as an ally and resource.”
Washing hands and practicing respiratory hygiene — covering one’s mouth when coughing or nose when sneezing — are anybody’s No. 1 defense against a communicable disease.
“Prevention is everything,” Carlin says. “People shouldn’t react out of fear to Ebola, they should react out of a proactive strength to [take preventative measures].”
In addition, teach and encourage residents to sanitize their walkers and assistive devices that they take into the restrooms and common areas.
Overall, Carlin says, disaster preparedness is key.
“Not only do we have the policies and protocols in place, but we rehearse how to respond to any disaster,” she says.
Read more about what senior living providers should know about Ebola, and the precautions to take, here.
Written by Cassandra Dowell