It’s been gaining on a year since COVID-19 landed in the Natural State, and only time will tell if the world will ever be the same. Even so, babies continue to be born, beaming couples still walk down the aisle, birthdays and holidays still roll to the top of the family calendar.
And Arkansas’ seniors, many of them, continue to take it all in from afar. Living behind panes of glass, PPE masks and their own physical frailties, theirs is the most foreign new normal, watching each day unwind from 6 feet away.
Many of these elders are lonely, but thanks to the efforts of caregivers in long-term care facilities across the state, they are never alone.
“We work hard during the day to put all these safety measures out there, and there have been long days. There’s no doubt about it,” said John Montgomery, vice president of strategic operations for Southern Administrative Services, which operates The Green House Cottages of Poplar Grove in Little Rock.
“But even in those long days, we see the fruits of our labor where we’re keeping the infection rate down. When we see various outbreaks across the state — and I wish that upon no home at any time — I know that we’re doing the right things.”
As Poplar Grove’s safety measures have been refined into familiar routine, management has turned its attention to enhanced activities and events in the name of attending to resident and staff mental health.
“The thing that we’ve changed the most is to try to continually have ongoing morale boosters for our staff and for our elders on an ongoing basis, more than we ever have,” Montgomery said. “It’s been really positive so far. We’ve had great response from our staff members; we’ve had great response from our community and, most importantly, our elders and their families.”
Having said all that, no amount of social activity can mask the hard facts of life: COVID-19 and its associated measures have taken a toll on seniors and staffs alike across the state, to say nothing of the industry itself.
“COVID-19, when it first emerged in this country and in Arkansas, we didn’t know if it was a sprint or a marathon back in March and April,” said Tim Hill, Southern Administrative Services’ chief operating officer. “We hoped it was going to be a sprint. Unfortunately, it’s really turned into a marathon.
“We kind of got through wave one, and things kind of settled, and they stayed light. And then, all of a sudden, the second wave seems to be somewhat more remarkable. You look at hospitalizations, early onset, you look at the death rate. All of that has literally destabilized both the acute care and the long-term care sector.
“It’s caused people to be gun-shy about applying for opportunities. We’ve lost employees that just didn’t want to run towards the fire. But the good news is that the majority of our staffing and our colleagues across the enterprise have said, ‘We’re in this.’ They ran to the fire in the interest of the 2,000-plus elders that we care for every day. That’s been the beauty of it.”
If care communities in cities like Little Rock and elsewhere are feeling isolated, then those located in Arkansas’ small towns and rural locations, such as Greenhurst Nursing Center in Charleston, can some days feel like they’re on another planet.
“We’ve been doing really, really well with our COVID-19 protocols. We haven’t had a horrific outbreak, knock on wood,” said Jonas Schaffer, co-owner. “Our staff is really working their rears off.”
Schaffer is something of an anomaly in the long-term care business, an on-site owner who works in his property every day. This immediacy has allowed the company to implement a variety of innovative programs during the course of the pandemic. Earlier this year, he started recording residents telling their life stories for social media broadcasts and posted their photos holding hand-lettered signs seeking pen pals. He deployed technology to produce socially distant hallway bingo games, made arrangements with local churches to stream services and helped residents stay in touch with loved ones, virtually.
“I’m trying to do anything I can, thinking outside of the box, that could help out,” he said, the strain of the past nine months flattening his voice. “The holidays were gut check time, then hoping we’d see the light at the end of the tunnel after that with a vaccine, if we could just do it.”
Operators don’t get any more all-in than Schaffer, who co-owns Greenhurst with his wife, Halie, a nurse practitioner. Together they devise and implement the protocols that serve both the elders and the staff.
“I don’t know what I’d do without her,” he said. “She has helped mastermind a very successful strategy of keeping COVID-19 out of the building. That’s taking each employee individually and assessing them, trying to figure out who needs to stay out and then telling them when to come back in.
“We’ve been nonstop trying to educate staff about what to do if you find yourself in a crowded living room with an uncle who thinks all of this is fake and is coughing. We’re also trying to provide the tools to keep people safe. I’m literally giving away all of this PPE, surgical masks and KN95 masks to my employees just to take home and give to family and just to have.”
Even with the fatigue in his voice, Schaffer demonstrates the kind of resolve that only comes with being a proud, third-generation owner of the award-winning community. What his forebearers saw through their eras’ challenges, he’s determined to see through coronavirus.
“I have a 99-year-old, World War II vet, and he stormed the beaches at Normandy,” Schaffer said. “He went all the way through, 17, 18 years old, people raining down machine gun fire, until the end of the war. I keep making this analogy that this man fought for us and now, we have to fight for him. He doesn’t want COVID-19, doesn’t want to be gasping for air. I’m trying to pick up all of these examples from our residents to inspire our people to feel it in their hearts and bones that they’re worth fighting for.”