Alums with UCH 'climb the mountain together' during pandemic

Jean Smith, ‘02, became the new administrator of Fairhaven Community in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, just five weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Ohio.

In his 30 years working in long-term care, Dan Miller, ’90, executive director of Parkvue Community in Sandusky, Ohio, has planned for pandemics but never imagined we’d see such a widespread public health crisis.

Jean and Dan are among several ‘Berg alumni who are working in United Church Homes communities during a time when the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic is the nation’s nursing homes, veterans’ homes and other long-term care facilities, serving the some of the most vulnerable among our population.

As administrators on the front lines during the historic pandemic, their focus has been on education, communication and support for residents, families and staff, working tirelessly to keep everyone safe and healthy.

“I’m having lots more phone conversations with residents’ loved ones while assuring residents, families and staff alike that this cannot last forever,” Jean says. “We’ve become so much more human because of this worldwide struggle.”

Keeping up to date

Staying current when information is rapidly changing can be a challenge. But it’s been a huge priority to monitor daily updates and new guidelines and information from the Ohio Department of Health, the CDC, state, federal and other health organizations and then react with appropriate processes and procedures, Dan explains. Based on state guidelines – which prohibited visitors to their nursing homes and long-term care facilities – quick policy changes had to be put in place. 

 “One of the first changes was required screening of all staff members and other essential workers entering our community,” Dan says. “Later we had to halt congregate dining and group community life activities. … We are physically distancing and the staff is no longer meeting as a team together in one room.”

Like so many other organizations, the communities have begun tracking daily personal protective equipment (PPE) usage. As Jean noted, communication with families has been key, but so has ongoing interactions with local emergency management agencies, county health departments and local and regional disaster coalitions. “In addition to these required communications, we’re calling and emailing residents and families with weekly updates, even when we have no active cases,” Dan says.

Every day has its firsts …

Everything pandemic-related is new, and therein lies another big challenge for the administrators. Sometimes, answers to questions just aren’t known. “Sometimes, we smile and say, ‘I don’t know. Let’s look into it – it’s our first pandemic,’” Jean says. “Every day has its firsts, and that’s not an exaggeration.”

… as teamwork and networking are key

Although she’d only been on the job at Fairhaven a short time before the pandemic, it didn’t take Jean long to appreciate the value of her team. They’ve climbed this mountain together. Much of that has centered around effective communication. Across the U.S., video calls such as Zoom have become the norm. They’ve helped organizations collaborate across physical spaces as well as help residents keep in touch with their loved ones.

“It’s amazing how changes in process can become the new normal after a short period of time,” Dan says, adding that the facility has implemented new levels of training for staff and new ways to evaluate effectiveness of the new processes.

Those come with some concern, though. “I worry about the isolation of our residents not being together at meal times and during social events. We are wearing masks, so we can’t see facial, nonverbal communication. It is harder to know if someone even smiles at you,” Dan says.

For Jean, though, those smiles through the masks are priceless. Every day, she’s grateful “for health and eyes smiling behind masks in our community.”

Through the many challenges, their teams’ adaptability and their residents’ appreciation has raised them up. “I’ve been uplifted by seeing how team members adapt and take on change, and how our residents have been supportive and appreciative of all we are doing to keep them safe, even when it disrupts their lives,” Dan says.

Yet another challenge: Gaining new residents

Marketing in the time of the pandemic has been a challenge as potential new residents are delaying tours of senior living communities, even with proper precautions. Debbie Spearman, ‘72, the director of marketing for Uplands Village between Knoxville and Nashville, has found that even so, people must go on with their lives as the need continues for services for older adults and their families.

“We have accepted a few new residents under strict conditions, including a 14-day isolation period,” Debbie says, noting that the community has yet to experience its first confirmed case of COVID-19. She’s witnessed an uptick in inquiries from urban areas across the nation recently, in large part due to Uplands Village’s rural setting with open meadows and woodlands. “I believe many city dwellers will seek out safer places to call home,” she adds. The work must go on.

Support for all

Every day, the United Church Homes “warriors” prove why they are in a serving profession. Time spent counseling a resident or staff member always matter the most. 

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins, ’84, is the executive director of UCH’s Ruth Frost Parker Center for Abundant Aging. The center brings together current theory and practice in the fields of gerontology, geriatrics, spirituality and aging, healthcare, housing and public policy within the context of the wide variety of professional fields upon which each of the communities of United Church Homes depend. The center provides forums for interdisciplinary learning and collaboration that promote innovation, advancement of knowledge and improvement of the quality of life for older adults through advocacy, education, engagement and outreach.

Beth and the Parker Center have been supporting UCH communities in a variety of ways. The center publishes a weekly blog and additional resources and information on its website. Additionally, Beth, an ordained United Church of Christ pastor, has been providing spiritual counseling to residents, families and staff, along with UCH’s full-time chaplains who provide pastoral care year-round. She’s also spent many hours sewing cloth masks.

What the future holds

Lots of lessons have been learned in the first few months of the pandemic, and surely more will come. Moving forward, the administrators believe they will be better prepared for future disasters. “I believe we have become much more adaptive in our use of technology and I believe this will continue to move us forward,” Dan says. One unexpected blessing: Because of regular team Zoom calls to share updates, ask questions and tell positive stories, “We have become closer to the United Church Homes team by virtually meeting with them so often.” Additionally, he believes there will be much grater collaboration between health care providers along the continuum of care.

On a personal level, Jean looks forward to hugging those she loves “and resting easy because I know Fairhaven did a great job” through the pandemic.

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