How do you balance older adults’ essential need for socialization with the urgent need to stay safe during this time of COVID-19?
Look to the experts who do this every day --- activities directors at Willow Brook Christian Communities. They’ve become nimble and creative, finding ways to keep residents mentally and socially stimulated in the midst of the coronavirus.
Kelly Frentsos has led Willow Brook activities for 15 years and isn’t going to let a pandemic stop her.
“It’s so important that older adults get together and enjoy meaningful activities; it really helps their physical and mental health,” says Frentsos, who leads activities for assisted living residents at the Delaware Run campus.
“The key is to find a combination of activities that can be done with social distancing and safety top of mind, whether it’s an exercise or music program, a conversation group or brain games,” Frentsos says.
Medical officials agree on the importance of socialization. Loneliness and social isolation have been associated with increased risk for conditions including dementia, stroke and coronary artery disease. Social isolation is now viewed as a risk factor for premature death similar to cigarette smoking, physical inactivity or obesity, according to national aging experts at the Texas A & M Center for Population Health and Aging.
For several months, group activities were closed, but restrictions eased this summer. In organizing activities, Willow Brook staff at all three campuses in Delaware, Ohio, and Worthington, Ohio, follow safety protocols issued by the Ohio Department of Health. Residents and staff wear face masks and stay six feet apart. Staff sanitize rooms and equipment frequently.
Even with the restrictions, people are joining in. “We’re actually seeing more people participate in activities than prior to COVID,” Frentsos said. “Before the virus, some folks didn’t feel the need to participate because they were getting lots of visits from family and friends. But since family visitation is limited to short outdoor visits, our residents are willing to try new things."
And residents who might never have signed up for an activity held outdoors are now more open to the idea. They're finding joy in friendship and fresh air.
"We just had a pool party in our courtyard with a small group of residents," says Lora Detlor, activities director at Willow Brook Christian Home. "We inflated a pool, and sat around drinking different flavors of iced tea. Mango was the favorite. I noticed how much everyone enjoyed the conversation and being outdoors."
Here are just a few of the creative ways Willow Brook is adapting its activities programs to entertain, stimulate and connect residents during COVID-19.
Small group exercise programs are offered at all three Willow Brook campuses and across all communities (independent, transitional, assisted living, memory care and skilled nursing). In every case, residents are six feet apart.
“The exercises are basically the same as before, but we move more slowly because we haven’t been as active before,” said Mary Lea Bailey, 93, an independent retirement community resident. “I’m very thankful we’re having these classes, even if it’s in a more limited way.”
At Willow Brook Christian Village, activities director Adrienne Rumschlag said her skilled nursing residents are staying active with balloon volleyball, chair exercises and tabletop golf. Independent residents at the Delaware campuses are taking flex and balance classes (held indoors and outdoors). And more residents are walking outdoors on the campus, while others prefer to do laps inside the buildings.
Before COVID, Willow Brook often hosted concerts by community groups before large crowds of residents. But outside groups can’t come into the buildings, and large groups are discouraged. So Connie McNeal, activities director at Willow Brook Christian Village, started hosting weekly talent shows, featuring acts from its talented staff and residents.
Office manager Lauri Mosher entertained with a hula hoop, while other staffers played the piano, crooned Broadway show tunes or juggled. As for residents, one man read jokes from a joke book, while another held a microphone and described photographs from her 50th wedding anniversary album, McNeal says.
“Everyone has a lot of fun, and we’re learning so many things about each other that otherwise we would not would have known,” McNeal says.
At Delaware Run, five residents formed a band called The Outsiders and hold concerts for small groups all over campus. And since outside activities are permitted, several community groups are performing on patios or in courtyards, with audience members seated six feet from each other.
Staff at Willow Brook Christian Home in Worthington have channeled their energy in many ways, even creating their own TV channel for residents.
Every day, staff at The Home broadcast music, baking activities, Bible study, travelogues, movies, bingo and much more on Channel 1852. And staff have used technology in other ways, offering music programs on Zoom and FaceTime. Music therapist Mary Kerr’s sing-a-long is a favorite.
All of these technologies help keep residents stimulated and engaged from the safety and comfort of their rooms. It's especially helpful for those who are frail or don't want to participate in group activities. They still feel connected to their friends at Willow Brook.
Both assisted living and nursing home residents on all three campuses are participating in outdoor visits with family members. Everyone wears masks during the visit and stays six feet apart. Activity leaders schedule the visits, which are enormously popular.
Just last week, Village resident Betty Baker, 92, visited with her daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter. Betty was delighted, and so was her granddaughter Susan. “My heart is so full now,” says Susan. “My grandmother is the cornerstone of our family.”
Willow Brook staff also have organized a number of outdoor events, including parades around campus. Participants drive by in cars or on bicycles and wave to residents. These parades are popular ways to celebrate birthdays, such as the 103rd birthday of resident Charlotte Gallant in July.
Activities leader Nathan Bonofiglio says the world is definitely brighter at Willow Brook. "During the lockdown, I'd take activity carts to people's rooms, and I could sense their mood was darker. Now that we have group activities, the tide has changed, and the positive energy is back. It's had a huge impact on our residents' well being."
To chat with our activity directors or learn more about Willow Brook, please call 740-201-5640 or Contact Us.