March 13, 2020, is circled on United Church Homes senior leaders’ calendars – just two days after COVID-19 was declared a national emergency in the U.S. That day began a baptism by fire for every UCH team member.
UCH faced two challenges against the backdrop of one of the most dangerous pandemics in history: protecting residents and staff and keeping residents connected and engaged.
“At UCH, every member of the team renewed their commitment to the residents we serve and became warriors in the fight against COVID-19.”
“Disruptions like this show us how resilient we are as an industry and as a team,” said UCH Senior Vice President and Chief Growth Officer Terry Spitznagel.”
Initially, very little was known about the novel coronavirus, and, in some cases, guidance provided by national, state and local agencies conflicted. “COVID-19 disrupted every aspect of our work,” Spitznagel said. “Beyond operational challenges, we needed to quickly address residents’ social and emotional needs – the threat to their overall well-being as visitors were no longer permitted in our communities.”
Daily conference calls were immediately established throughout the UCH network of more than 70 skilled nursing, assisted, independent and affordable housing communities to identify and prioritize critical challenges and brainstorm solutions. Within 48 hours, a new full-time position – virtual visitor guide – was created to maintain the connection between residents and their loved ones. A staff member dedicated solely to that responsibility was put in place at most UCH communities. The plan was fully implemented within one week.
“Maintaining a sense of community was important to our affordable housing residents, too,” said Dan Fagan, who serves as Director of Population Health. “Some health problems that make them particularly vulnerable, and all are at risk for feelings of isolation and fear. Many rely on supportive agencies for personal care, medical assistance and delivery of needed goods and supplies.” Software that supports the delivery of mass messages kept residents informed, and service coordinators at each of the affordable housing communities increased their outreach to residents.
Dining teams also faced challenges as state health departments forced closures of senior living dining rooms and halted group activities. Community dining directors transitioned to delivering meals to residents’ doors nearly overnight, ensuring residents received the nutritious meals and snacks they needed.
Staff and resident morale were also challenged. Staff quickly stepped into supportive roles played by residents’ family members under normal circumstances, and activity directors and chaplains increased their outreach to residents. Throughout 2020, staff shared how much they felt supported by team members and leaders, and expressed admiration for residents’ strength.
Spitznagel characterizes the vaccine rollout as “an absolute godsend” that’s had an incredibly positive impact. Vaccines have dramatically decreased infections, giving residents and staff a real sense of hope. Vaccine clinics were held at all communities, and UCH distributed non-biased information and answers to frequently asked questions to residents, family members and staff.
“We’ve faced extraordinary challenges in this pandemic,” Spitznagel said, “but our teams are resilient, and their commitment to residents is stronger than ever.”