Covid-19 Tests Senior Living Providers’ Creativity In Resident Engagement

Many senior living activities programs ground to a halt when the Covid-19 pandemic forced residents to self-isolate in their rooms starting in March. But in the time since, providers across the country have come up with a range of ways to keep residents entertained and engaged — an effort that becomes increasingly important as the pandemic drags on.

Prior to the pandemic, senior living providers were focused on upgrading the resident experience to appeal to the incoming baby boomer generation. And although most senior living provider are just weeks into their Covid-19 measures, the disease’s unique pressures and uncertain duration may change the face of resident activities for years to come.

In recent week, local news coverage has been full of examples showing providers’ creativity, including doling out drinks and bowls of ice cream from a mobile cart; arranging hallway parties; and holding certain events outside in the fresh air, even if the residents themselves are only observing.

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Providers have also turned to tech-forward solutions, like Bellevue, Washington-based Aegis Living’s new Youtube channel pilot, Aegis Live. Three times a week, an in-house production team delivers programming directly to residents’ computers or mobile devices as a supplement to the provider’s Covid-19 normal activities schedule. And, the Covid-19 crisis is highlighting some advantages that small-home communities may enjoy, in being able to maintain a greater sense of normalcy in day-to-day activities.

Many senior living providers are budgeting extra time and money to build these forward-thinking programs, and reinventing normal activities routines at a moment’s notice is an added burden. But doing so is crucial to help residents — and even staff — avoid the emotional toll of long-term social isolation, according to Chris Corrigall, vice president of life enrichment at Aegis.

“There is a human [contact] threshold, whether you’re serving a resident, or whether you’re a resident yourself,” Corrigall told Senior Housing News. “So, we have to look at even more creative and compassionate ways to nurture our residents during this period of time.”

From senior living provider to production company

When Aegis Living enacted its Covid-19 infection control measures last month, the company needed fresh programming to provide residents with a variety of activities to engage in each day.

So the provider began holding hallway entertainment sessions for residents to socialize and take part in music, games and other activities from their doorways. Aegis also started delivering art supplies to residents’ rooms to stimulate their creativity.

But the provider also wanted to help residents stay connected through digital programming — and Corrigall had an idea. He previously worked with Crystal Cruises for more than 16 years, and during that time had helped produce a daily, in-house show for the luxury cruise company.

“It was for the guests who were 75 and above, and it was kind of like a morning roundup,” Corrigall said. “We talked about topical things and interviewed different guests.”

Corrigall — who first joined Aegis in 2013 — said the idea to start and cohost a television show during infection control protocols, such as when flu outbreaks occur, had been bouncing around in his head for a few years before Covid-19 surfaced.

“When this all occurred, it really sparked the impetus to get this going,” he explained. “Getting the equipment, getting everything organized, getting the video editor … it just happened so quickly.”

A typical Aegis Live episode lasts 30 to 40 minutes, and features a theme of the day, jokes, fitness routines, music, trivia, resident birthdays, health tips and daily affirmations. Though the show isn’t truly live, residents can follow along with a one-sheet handout delivered to them on the morning of that day’s episode.

As of April 10, Aegis had uploaded nine episodes to YouTube. Most of the residents who watch the show tune in on their tablets, while others watch on their phones.

“It’s provided an opportunity for us to digitally deliver engagement from a mind, body and spirit perspective,” said Corrigall (pictured below on the right). “And it’s been a lot of fun.”

Aegis Living

Aegis isn’t the only company producing a show for senior living residents. Seniorly, an online platform that pairs people looking for senior living with local placement agents, also produces its own Youtube show called Curtain Up. New episodes air live on YouTube each weekday, and the show features performances from well-known professional actors, singers, comedians — including Nick Kroll, Jean Louisa Kelly and Bethany Joy Lenz.

The show is the brainchild of Seniorly CEO Arthur Bretschneider; alongside hosts Andrew Barrett, director of content; and Emma Rodbro, customer success lead. The show is filmed in the hosts’ and performers’ homes with Ashley Rodbro as director and Stephanie Cowan as producer.

Residents and staff who are tuning in can chat with the performers in real time or ask questions via the YouTubechat function.

To make sure the episodes are available for senior living residents to see, Seniorly is working with engagement directors, activities directors and coordinators inside communities. During the first episode of Curtain Up, residents and staff from a Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD) community in Marietta, Georgia, recognized the show’s performers, a musical duo called Branden & James that once played on “America’s Got Talent.”.

“The activities director signed on and said in the chat, ‘Oh my gosh, we remember when you played some years ago,’” Bretschneider told SHN. “It was such a cool moment.”

And other providers are using residents’ televisions to keep them engaged. Hershey, Pennsylvania-based Country Meadows Retirement Communities, for instance, has its own dedicated television channel to air recorded exercise videos, Sunday church services, devotions and meditations and different activities and lectures, according to Meredith Mills, senior vice president and COO at Country Meadows.

“You or I, if we were with our loved one, we would find senior-friendly fitness videos on YouTube, but our residents don’t have the ability to do that,” Mills told SHN. “I think it gives them some comfort and connection, knowing that it’s people that are familiar to them and that they can still receive words of encouragement and just some sense of normalcy.”

Six feet of separation

While custom-made shows like Aegis Live and Curtain Up can help in situations where residents are largely confined to their living units, some providers are not sequestering residents to their bedrooms. This is the case with some Green House Project organizations, which operate smaller, more contained communities that some argue may be better-suited to weather something like a pandemic.

One such community is SunPorch of Smith County, a Green House Project-affiliated community in Smith Center, Kansas, with two, 11-resident assisted living and memory care households on its campus. There, residents can still participate in socially distanced, one-on-one activities such as manicures, games, pet visits, crafts, exercise, video chats and hair pampering, according to Julie Troy, social service, activities and marketing director for SunPorch of Smith County.

“We realized very quickly that elders were not willing to stay in their rooms because it was their home,” Troy told SHN Senior Housing News. “In order to meet the intent of the recommendations, and because we are so small … if [residents] choose to still come out of their room, we allow them to do so while remaining six feet apart.”

That’s not to say SunPorch of Smith County hasn’t implemented precautions against the spread of Covid-19. The community is barring any visitors, save for essential medical personnel, for the duration of the pandemic. And, the community is constantly reminding its residents on the risks Covid-19 poses to older adults. But, choosing to give residents the option to move throughout their homes has made it easier to keep them engaged, Troy said.

“With only 11 elders in each home, it has made it much easier to fulfill the six-feet-apart rule, compared to a traditional long-term care home, where 20 or more elders live,” Troy said. “Since meaningful engagement is determined by each elder, they are already used to the control and choice.”

In the hallways and parking lots

Larger communities may have to get more creative, and are engaging staff members who typically focus on different areas to help with engagement and activities while residents are not able to gather in larger groups.

“The beautiful thing is, sometimes, it used to be just one activity director in a community room huddling everyone,” Susan Farr, vice president of new business development for Ebenezer, told Senior Housing News. “Now, the chef might help out and handle the happy hours, or the marketing director might join in on the exercise. They’ve just gotten super creative.”

Ebenezer — a Minneapolis, Minnesota-based provider with about 50 senior living communities in its 105-property portfolio — is keeping residents active with a variety of in-room activities that include sing-alongs, in-room exercise sessions, traveling ice cream sundae and happy hour carts and hallway birthday parties. Ebenezer is part of Fairview Health Services, a not-for-profit health system also in Minneapolis.

Several providers have also taken the festivities outside. That includes Ebenezer, which on Good Friday hosted a pastor to hold a special non-denominational service for all of its residents. Instead of congregating together, residents watched from their windows as the pastor led communion outside.

“He was out in the parking lot on a boombox speaker,” Farr said. “We made sure that everyone got communion wafers in their building, too.”

Several providers are also throwing outdoor parades for residents. Aegis, for example, recently helped organize a “birthday parade” with a 97-year-old resident’s family and friends — all at a safe distance.

“We look forward to reuniting our families soon,” wrote President Kris Engskov in a LinkedIn update about the birthday parade Monday. “Until then, we’ve got incredible people pulling out all the stops to keep our seniors safe, connected and happy.”

The Woodlands-based Avanti Senior Living has held car parades at three of its six operating communities. During those events, residents sit outside and watch as their families and neighbors drive by in decorated cars with signs of encouragement.

The resident response has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Avanti COO Lori Alford.

“It was so amazing,” Alford told Senior Housing News. “We got so many family responses of how thankful they were we did this.”

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