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Pandemic provides lessons, opportunities

The COVID-19 global pandemic has forced many changes throughout the world, as people have been asked to navigate daily tasks of life with exceeding care and caution. Few places have been as affected as congregate living communities, and few people have been asked to do more than the residents and employees of the PMMA family.

As the pandemic continues into autumn, we asked Aberdeen Heights' Executive Director, Rick Cumberland, to talk about the lingering effect of the coronavirus, and about the way in which employees and residents have worked together to ensure the safety and well-being of everyone.

“Constant encouragement for the team has been a critical factor,” Rick said of his approach. “Open communication has helped. Our team has banded together to develop communication programs, exercise programs, family online chats, outside concerts, etc. Basically, no new idea has been rejected, and the team has been extremely creative. Our life enrichment team even distributes ice cream and popsicles to the door of all independent living residents once a week. The response of the residents have been overwhelmingly positive.”

Yet, months of limits on outside visitors have created a new set of challenges that are intertwined with the physical health concerns of the virus. As the months go on, it’s harder to keep morale high for both residents and employees.

“In addition to the clinical challenges of COVID-19, the increasing challenge is the psychosocial needs of our residents. Isolation and depression are taking their toll even on independent living residents who are not in strict isolation,” Rick said. “Along with all the clinical and psychosocial challenges, the sparsity of employees and inability to secure replacement staff has been extremely difficult.”

Aberdeen Heights Executive Director Rick Cumberland
Aberdeen Heights Executive Director Rick Cumberland

In recent weeks, talk has begun of taking a slow, phased approach to opening up communities to help residents connect with family and resume some sense of routine and normalcy. Doing so, however, will require a great deal of strategy and care.

“Challenges in reopening are one, finally getting permission to do it; two, keeping residents and families patient with the gradual, phased approach after such a long prohibition period; and three, maintaining safety as we try to increase enjoyment. Communication has been ramped up considerably and remains a primary concern,” Rick said. “Is it enough, is it frequent enough, are we reaching everyone we need to reach? We meet regularly as a team and are taking a very organized and disciplined approach to program the reopening stages. We are also communicating weekly, in person as well as in writing, with residents and family regarding what is currently happening (charts, stats, testing, etc.) and what is coming up in the next stages of reopening.”

Despite the extraordinary level of planning and communication, we’ve learned that something like a pandemic follows its own path and its own timeline. The need for flexibility and adaptability is paramount as the number of cases outside the community rise and fall nearly daily, requiring quick changes to any reopening effort.

“We are planning every stage and phase for each discipline and area — reviewing constantly and rewriting to accommodate any new regulatory changes, meeting frequently, and keeping an open communication platform for questions and readjustments,” Rick said. “We attend all of the industry and health department webinars and calls with PMMA to continue to help us know of new information and statistics.”

The pandemic has also given the Aberdeen Heights community an opportunity to learn and use that knowledge to better prepare for whatever comes next. Some of the learning will help employees better prepare if cases surge again, and some helps team members and management provide more personalized care for residents.

“Our team has a strong sense of responsibility and commitment,” Rick said. “We have learned that we never want to do this again. We also are learning the importance of continuing safe measures; we have learned not to rely on testing and to value quarantine and safety measures as a more reliable tool than testing. We are also learning the devastating impact of isolation and conversely the importance of relationships and gatherings — relationships with residents as well as with team members. We have learned more solidly that one cannot be successful without others. Our team has always been an extension of our residents’ families, and in fact, many families are reaching out to us to extend their feelings and well wishes to their residents. The difficulties of COVID-19 have served to deepen those connections.”

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