A breath of fresh air. Storefronts are coming to life just like the flourishing summer greenery. Businesses are starting up. Doors are opening.

Despite the global pandemic, much of Wisconsin is itching to return to normal. This could leave the state’s elderly residents even more suscepible to COVID-19. 

Heidi McGeehan, the campus administrator of Christian Community Homes and Services (CCHS) in Osceola said as lockdowns and quarantines have become engrained in everyday life, the world in assisted living homes looks very different than much of the rest of the state. Because CCHS is following the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Department of Health guidelines, their doors are closed to all visitors and non-essential staff.

“Upon coming into our building, all staff are doing a screening check and then they are also taking their temperatures,” McGeehan said. “And this is every shift that they come in to work.” The residents are also screened three times a day – checking vitals, temperature, and symptoms.

Every resident and staff member is wearing a mask, maintaining distance from each other and ritualistically hand-washing. Communal dining is closed for residents, as are group activities, and residents eat meals in their rooms. The only social interactions are one-on-one.

Just a mile down the road, Eagle Ridge Senior Living and Memory Care in Osceola is facing much different obstacles – they haven’t opened yet.

Eagle Ridge is scheduled to open their doors soon. For their managing company, Senior Housing Companies, this isn’t the first time they’ve opened an assisted living home during a pandemic.

Senior Housing Companies operates over 65 communities across Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Kentucky. Earlier this year they added a new location in the Minneapolis suburbs.

Melisa Wiebenga, the director of community relations for Senior Housing Companies, described the grand opening of a senior living facility like freshman move-in day at a college campus. During a pandemic, however, the jovial meetings and chaos of welcoming new residents are replaced by carefully scheduled move-ins, one at a time, with lots of disinfecting.

“What we would do is work with moving companies and disinfect, sanitize, (the residents’) furniture and things before they brought them into the building,” Wiebenga said.

 Everyone helping would wear gowns, gloves and masks, and were screened for symptoms.

They have also creatively used a building’s layout to help families avoid contact with each other. One family would use the front door, while another family would use the back door.

“And then once that resident is in,” Wiebenga said, “then we also went through a quarantine process.” 

The resident would eat meals in their rooms, be provided with crafts from the activity director, and be allowed to sometimes take short walks around the campus, provided they wore a mask.

These strategies will be repeated when Eagle Ridge opens.

Previously, CCHS residents participated in on-site activities like bingo, stretching and exercises, singing and music and a host of events. As a faith-based organization, three worship services are offered each week, as well as frequent visits from a chaplain who is available for spiritual counseling and conversation. 

“We try and meet the resident’s safety needs and spiritual needs as well,” McGeehan said.

Now, activities are cancelled, doors are closed and visits are postponed. As the days slog on, staff and residents are working hard to keep each other’s spirits up.

Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes, and the interpersonal needs of at-risk people during pandemic quarantines have mothered incredible creativity. Family members frequently make appearances at their loved one’s window to chat, and hand written letters and drawings are sent to cheer them up. Families go to heartwarming lengths to make sure their loved ones don’t feel alone.

Throughout Senior Housing Companies locations, ingenuity is thriving, with activities like “hydration carts.” With dessert carts decorated like ice cream trucks, staff members play music on cell phones and deliver ice cream and water bottles to every room.

Other events like “hallway bingo” and TV-broadcast exercise programs are big hits at the homes. Wiebenga wants to make sure the residents don’t spend all their time watching the news and worrying. 

“We want to make sure that our residents feel safe,” she said. 

Safety appears to be an increasingly difficult achievement in today’s world. “We are always nervous about our residents,” McGeehan said. On May 22, one of the CCHS staff tested positive for COVID-19. Immediately they were quarantined, along with three other staff members who had direct contact with them. Thankfully, there was no direct contact with the residents.

Facility-wide testing had already been anticipated, and everyone at CCHS has tested negative for the virus. By following strict protocols and precautions, the whole team was able to protect the residents. 

As far as Wiebenga has seen, the staff have kept upmost care to be aware of not just health concerns, but also companionship concerns.

“They feel the residents are like grandparents or parents, aunts, uncles — and they treat them like that,” she said. “They’re family.”

The restrictions on visitors have been wearing on the residents. “They’re pretty tough,” McGeehan said. “But they’re feeling the effects of loneliness.”

She recommended writing a letter or a drawing picture and sending it to them, because knowing someone is thinking of them really dulls the pain of isolation. Encouragement for all the workers is hugely appreciated too, McGeehan said. 

Another way to support local assisted living facilities is by donating. They are always looking for more personal protective equipment (PPE) to ensure safety.

“Personal protective equipment is fantastic,” Wiebenga siad. “It works. It really prevents the spread of the virus.” With medical facilities across the country in need of PPE, supplies have proven difficult to acquire. To learn more about how to donate, the CCHS and Eagle Ridge websites have contact information available.

Wiebenga is excited for the new Osceola assisted living location, despite the pandemic difficulties. “I know that the manager and the owner and the team and this community is really looking forward to being a part of the town of Osceola,” she said. “And you know, this will pass. We will get to the other side.”

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