Nursing homes adapt in aftermath of Covid pandemic

By Dave Healy

Covid-19 changed things for everyone, but perhaps no segment of society has been more greatly affected by the pandemic than nursing homes.

According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, long-term care facilities have had nearly 2 million confirmed Covid-19 cases since the pandemic began, with nearly 172,000 deaths attributed to the illness.

How has the pandemic affected local long-term care facilities?

St. Anthony Park Home, an 84-bed facility at 2237 Commonwealth Ave., has services for transitional and long-term care residents.

Lisa Amsler, activities director, said that during the height of the pandemic, when she and her staff could no longer conduct group activities, “we rolled a piano up and down the hall so I could play for residents in their rooms.”

Another adjustment was using Zoom and FaceTime for some hitherto in-person activities, like bingo and reading by a volunteer, as well as enabling friends and loved ones to communicate with residents when the facility was locked down.

“Being forced to become better able to use available technology has had lasting benefits,” Amsler said. “We continue to use those tools for people who live too far away to visit regularly.”

Amsler said that having to wear personal protective equipment made interactions with residents more difficult and impersonal: “Residents rely on seeing familiar faces, and it was hard when masks and gowns and shields made us difficult to recognize and understand.”

One effect of the pandemic was that even after in-person activities resumed, it was difficult to get some residents to participate. “Some of them got used to staying in their rooms, and we had to work harder to get them to come out,” Amsler said.

She noted that when it became possible to hold group activities again, some of the larger ones were moved outdoors to the patio to better accommodate social distancing. That practice has continued.

“Although we always had held some activities outdoors, it was increased because of the pandemic,” Amsler said.

For Mona Salazar, director of nursing at SAPH, the pandemic helped pull people together. Staff from occupational and physical therapy helped out with some nursing assistant duties, including feeding residents who needed help eating.

Staffing had been a challenge at SAPH before the pandemic, and Covid-19 intensified that. One thing they lost because of pandemic restrictions was their status as a clinical training site, which was a potential source of new hires.

Salazar said she experienced some mixed emotions when lockdown restrictions were loosened.

“Of course, we felt for those residents who hadn’t been able to receive visits from friends and loved ones,” she said. “At the same time, when outsiders could resume coming in, I realized that our protective bubble would be different. Even during the height of the pandemic, I felt safer in our building than I did outside.”

Salazar said that one positive effect of the pandemic is that it improved SAPH’s infectious disease control. “We became, and continue to be, more proactive,” she said.

The view from Lyngblomsten

At Lyngblomsten Care Center, a 225 bed-facility in the Como Park neighborhood, long-term care residents live in one of ten “neighborhoods,” small groups of rooms. That arrangement made it easier to isolate infected residents during the height of the pandemic, according to Greg Wainman, director of nursing.

Wainman said that although some staff resigned early in the pandemic, Lyngblomsten was able to continue providing care without using agency or pool personnel. “We have one of the highest retention rates—over 90 percent—in the industry,” he said.

Wainman said that the current nursing staff of 260—which includes RNs, LPNs, and nursing assistants—is close to where he’d like it to be: 275. He added that the pandemic prompted Lyngblomsten to think about how to incentivize working there, leading to the establishment of bonuses for staff who agreed to work extra hours.

“One positive outcome of the pandemic was an increased sense of camaraderie among all our staff,” Wainman said. “We were forced to rely on each other through shared hardship, and that spirit continues to this day. As staff, we’re caregivers for our residents, but we also need to take care of each other.” 

Dave Healy lives in St. Anthony Park and is a former editor of the Bugle.

Photo: Residents at St. Anthony Park Home play parachute volleyball.  Photo by St. Anthony Park Home.

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