It’s safe to say that everyone has been affected in some way or another by the yearlong coronavirus pandemic.

But one group more than any other bore the brunt of the isolation brought about by the pandemic, and had more reason than most to fear the rapid spread of the virus among a vulnerable population.

Although senior apartments, assisted living communities and nursing homes are different in the type of residents they serve, they shared one thing in common during the lockdown — separation from loved ones.

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A masked Santa Claus pays a visit to the Atria Kinghaven apartment of Alice Gauss last December.

Atria Kinghaven, a retirement community located at 14800 King Road in Riverview, takes pride in being able to offer its residents a host of vibrant activities throughout the year, but there was only so much they could do during a lockdown.

Karen Roberts, the facility’s activities director; and Elizabeth Mathews, community sales director; said it’s been a tough year for all senior communities, assisted living centers and nursing homes.

In an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, statewide stay-at-home orders meant no visitors were allowed.

“Most residents were struggling with the loneliness and boredom of the day to day,” Mathews said. “The activities departments in senior centers had to change their ways. They went from having parties, gatherings, entertainers, large groups of bingo, crafts and such — went to one-on-one activities in their room or apartment, window visits and lots of dragging a TV around to rooms so they can do a Zoom or FaceTime call to their families.”

Transportation experienced a change, as well. The party bus at Atria Kinghaven has been parked for over a year now, with only transportation to essential doctor appointments being allowed.

But Mathews said a light at the end of the tunnel is now visible, due in large part to the release of vaccines. Things are gradually getting back to normal, with family members now able to visit by appointment.

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Like most senior living communities, Atria Kinghaven in Riverview had to rethink how to hold activities during the coronavirus pandemic. Resident Paul Haley had a private birthday celebration in his room. Similar in-room activities took place to celebrate the Super Bowl, Christmas and Veterans Day.

Also, the bus is up and running again, although only up to only 25% capacity, with riders continuing to wear face masks and observe social distancing.

Small group activities also are starting back up again, such as bingo and crafts. The dining room is up to 50% capacity, and exercise classes have returned — with proper social distancing.

Those who run the facility also are proud of the fact that its employees and residents have all received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Thinking outside the box

Michigan House Senior Living, 18533 Quarry Road in Riverview, had the misfortune of opening its new facility just months before the pandemic broke out.

According to Executive Director Gabriela Birkner, Michigan House Senior Living planned to celebrate its grand opening in the spring of 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic put the brakes on those plans, as well as halted new admissions to its community.

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Gabriela Birkner, executive director at Michigan House Senior Living in Riverview, said a quiet room meant for families to spend time together with their loved ones hasn’t been used during the pandemic because of the need for social distancing. Once restrictions are lifted, the fidget activity quilt on the wall is designed to help keep residents occupied, and puzzles will be added to the room, as well.

With restrictions remaining in place longer than anticipated, they needed to think outside the box in finding ways to assist families with placement without family members being able to tour the community.

“In addition to the use of our virtual tour on the website that families could visit independently, we have utilized a variety of video communications in order to give prospective families a ‘live walk-through tour,’” Birkner said. “At the peak of the pandemic, families were put in difficult situations when their loved one had no choice but to be placed in an assisted living/memory care community, but they were not able to be hands-on in this process. Michigan House relied heavily on referrals and word of mouth to help these families feel at ease when selecting the appropriate community and make their transition go as smooth as possible.”

The fact it was a new community, not at full occupancy, was a blessing in disguise during the pandemic. Birkner said residents and staff remained free of exposure to the virus almost entirely, and the brief exposure they had was extremely limited and short-lived. With only a dozen residents (the capacity is 42), social distancing has not been an issue.

Although nothing can replace the family time residents lost last year due to the pandemic, Birkner said residents were able to spend valuable one-on-one time with a variety of staff on a daily basis.

“Whether it be conversation over coffee, gardening in the courtyards or some spa time, our staff have been able to go above and beyond and really connect with our residents,” she said, adding that the Life Enrichment Department was extra creative by making sure residents did not miss out on favorite activities, such as bingo and music therapy.

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Gerald Jelsomeno has been a resident at Michigan House since it opened in late 2019. He said he had a touch of cabin fever during much of the pandemic. He occupied his time by reading and exercising.

Gerald Jelsomeno has been a resident at Michigan House since it opened. Originally from Wyandotte, he worked for Great Lakes Steel as a technical services engineer, retiring after 34 years of service.

He admitted to having a touch of cabin fever during much of the pandemic, saying he occupied his time by reading and exercising, adding that as the weather begins to warm up, he is looking forward to going outside.

“It’s working out pretty good,” he said. “I expect something has to give pretty soon. I have been here for a year. But if you have to be any place for a year, this would be the place.”

Next to his chair in his apartment is a photo of his girlfriend, Phyllis, who had just paid him a visit that day. During the lockdown, she would visit him every day outside his window, even on the coldest winter days.

Two of his sons live on both coasts — one in Massachusetts and the other in California. A third son lives in Michigan, but on the other side of the state, in Saugatuck. They keep in touch with him regularly, but his most frequent visitor is Phyllis.

“Visitors are required to have a negative COVID-19 test which we can assist with, must be screened, and always wear a mask, while maintaining social distancing,” Birkner said. “While we are still a long way away from how things were just a year ago, the recent visits, even with the restrictions, have made such a huge impact on our residents both emotionally and physically.”

Triumph over adversity

Another retirement community, American House Riverview, 20300 Fort St., was recently honored as a Best of Senior Living 2021 award winner by A Place for Mom, Inc., the largest senior living service in North America.

The senior living service said this year has been tough for so many, and American House Riverview has shown its resilience in the face of this challenge.

From distanced concerts, 100th birthday parades, video calls with family, to having staff just be there to engage with residents and caregivers when they are needed most, reviewers said that American House Riverview provided the utmost care.

“Our corporate and on-site teams have all stepped up to the challenges the pandemic has brought on this year, and for that I am very grateful,” said Dale Watchowski, president and CEO of American House Senior Living Communities. “Together, we have accomplished so much like HomeSafe, a program that focuses on the health and safety of every individual in our community. I am inspired by everyone’s dedication and hard work, and I am energized and optimistic about the bright future we are building together at American House.”

Reflected in many of the top reviews, the senior living industry has remained a critical industry during the pandemic.

A Place for Mom surveyed families that moved into a senior living community over the past six months with 86% of caregivers indicating that COVID-19 did not influence their decision to move their loved one into a community during the pandemic, mainly as a result of seniors needing care beyond what could be provided at home.

More so, almost 9 in 10 families surveyed with a loved one in senior living said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the care their loved one was receiving this past year, as caregiver fatigue became an unfortunate reality with 77% of caregivers reporting that they have been overwhelmed by the demands of caring for a senior since the pandemic began.

“During a year that challenged all of us, and particularly front-line health care workers, senior living communities demonstrated resilience going above and beyond to keep residents safe, healthy, and happy,” said Sue Johansen, senior vice president, Community Network, at A Place for Mom.

Window visits and FaceTime

The experience at many nursing homes has been different than senior housing communities. Like most nursing homes, Aerius Health Center, 13840 King Road in Riverview, also serves short-term patients who require rehabilitation, often after surgery.

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Like most nursing homes, Aerius Health Center in Riverview also serves short-term patients who require rehabilitation, often after surgery.

Aerius, which is run by Nursing Home Administrator Michelle Terry, opened in October 2018. One of its first residents was 86-year-old Robert Douglas of Gibraltar. According to his daughter and guardian, Kelly Douglas, her father suffers from Parkinson’s disease and has dementia. He also is wheelchair bound.

According to Nick Trivedi, lead therapist at Aerius, the Compassionate Care Act provides recommendations that allow up to two family members to visit their loved ones at nursing homes, provided they test negative up to 72 hours prior to the visit.

“We as a building offer COVID tests to all the family members,” he said. “Of course, it’s free — we don’t charge for it. We schedule their visits so not everybody is here at the same time. This is the newest practice that allows visitors, which began about three weeks ago.”

But for the vast majority of the pandemic, communication between residents and their loved ones was limited to telephone calls, FaceTime calls and window visits. According to Trivedi, the facility became off limits to visitors last year beginning mid-March.

“So it’s been close to a year that family members have not been able to see their loved ones in person,” he said.

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During much of the coronavirus pandemic residents at Aerius Health Center had to eat in their rooms, but now can dine in a socially distant dining room, with one person per table.

During the early months of the pandemic, nursing homes were the focus of much media attention, as COVID-19 outbreaks ran rampant in many of them. Trivedi said Aerius was fortunate not to have any major outbreaks.

As a building, the 78-bed facility has mostly private rooms, with only about 10 rooms that share beds.

In addition to not mixing patients together, he said Aerius followed strict guidelines such as washing hands and wearing masks, even before they were required to wear them.

During the late spring or early summer, Aerius started testing staff for COVID-19, Trivedi said. First they were tested weekly, then later twice a week. Also, new patients are isolated for 14 days, as occasionally tests can indicate false negatives.

“This is a very vulnerable population,” he said. “If somebody gets it, it’s very hard to control.”

Douglas said she felt assured by Michelle Terry and her staff, which gave her peace of mind. She sees her father almost every day, and prior to in-person visits, FaceTime was among the most common ways of communicating with him, although she also has made numerous window visits.

Trivedi pointed out that with dementia patients, sometimes FaceTime or window visits are almost better for the patient because they can see the faces of their loved ones. In-person visits currently require visitors to wear masks, and on occasion a dementia patient may not realize who the visitor is.

Although FaceTime and window visits bridged the gap, for most dementia patients, having a loved one in the same room with them often makes a connection like no other.

Douglas said it was emotional to see her father in person for the first time — for both her and her dad.

“He has moments of clarity sometimes, so even he broke down and cried,” she said. “It definitely was an emotional moment.”

A cure for coronavirus blues

Trivedi said it’s natural for nursing home residents to become sad or depressed when not able to see family for a long period of time.

Douglas said it was stressful for her. Realizing her father is advanced in age with several health issues, she thought about the possibility of his health declining at a time she wasn’t able to physically be with him.

But the window visits helped, as did FaceTime calls with her dad’s other adult children and grandchildren. She believes the interaction with loved ones stimulated his mind, and helped him not to feel so secluded.

Staff also made sure to keep residents busy with a variety of activities, whether it be playing cards or bingo games with them, to things such as drawing and nail polishing.

“It has been challenging for our activities department, but they kept everybody as involved as they could,” Trivedi said.

But even more than just family members and staff, the entire community has played a role in keeping up the spirits of nursing home residents during the pandemic.

Last summer, Aerius held a parade, where family members drove up in their vehicles as residents looked out their windows.

“They honked their horns and it cheered them up,” Trivedi said.

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Nick Trivedi, lead therapist at Aerius, said the gym is the largest room at the health center and is crucial especially for those recovering from an injury, medical incident or surgery.

Additionally, members of the Grosse Ile High School Marching Band put on a parade, playing music for the nursing home residents that lifted their spirits, many of whom watched from outside on a warm afternoon.

Trivedi said members of the police and fire departments also stopped by to cheer up the residents.

“The community has been great,” Trivedi said. “That’s one good thing about the Downriver community. When we need people to step up, they do step up to help each other out. They were amazing.”

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