What’s Happening inside Senior Communities During the Virus Crisis

By Dean Solden

During this Coronavirus Crisis, I’ve read and heard a lot about how difficult it has been for seniors, especially over 60, or 65, or 75 – but I haven’t read or heard about what it’s actually like inside a senior living community while this is all going on.  Well, I run senior living communities and I can tell you exactly what’s going on.

The first thing I can tell you is this – up to this point, the people who live with us in our senior communities at Vibrant Life Senior Living have been amazing.  They barely blinked when it was announced a few weeks ago that their families couldn’t come and visit them for fear of spreading the virus.  (There is always that one annoying relative).

And they haven’t been that upset about the virus itself.

Maybe they are not paying that much attention to it, or maybe this is one place where having just a little bit of dementia is a little protective.  We are not blasting the TV with Coronavirus news every minute and that may be helpful.  They are just not focusing on it as much as the rest of us are.

In this last week we keep getting notices from the many agencies that sends us such things – CDC, CMS, AHCA, our state, our licensing board, our trade associations – they have mandated us to restrict group activities and group dining.  As a result of that, our residents are starting to get a bit edgy.  They used to enjoy their routine of coming to the dining room three times a day and sitting at the same table with the same people.  They looked forward to being served by one of our staff members, with their wonderful smiles, and enjoying the little banter and jokes they have with them.  They liked gearing up and getting out of their room for some of their favorite activities during the day between meals. And they especially love the music.  Now two to three weeks into this ongoing situation, they are starting to get a little stir crazy. But for the most part, we haven’t seen as much depression as one would think.

Now the staff is a different matter, and I’ll talk about that in more detail another time.  I can tell you this – they are getting a little scared.  Here in Ann Arbor Michigan, we are just seeing and feeling the effects of the virus first hand.  The first few weeks we had a few scares – some staff got sick – but they all tested negative, when we could get them a test.  Unless they are showing virus symptoms, their doctors won’t test them.  Now people they know are starting to get tested positive, and that is scary.  We managers do all we can to reassure them, and also let them know they are our modern-day heroes. Their children and grandchildren will talk about them for years to come.  I truly am in awe of our staff – the people who work at Vibrant Life.

Some of the family members, however, are taking this hard.  Especially the ones who used to come everyday and visit and sit with their loved ones, and even give us a hand.  For many of you,  devoted spouses and friends, daughters, and sons, coming to our senior community every day has been a big part of your life.  You feel this as much, if not more, than our residents.  We truly feel for you and with you.

To counterbalance the lessening of activities and the loss of the visitors, we have been doing a lot of videoconferencing.  For the last few years, since the advent of Skype and Facetime, I’ve been wanting to do this, but it just never took off. Well, now it has.  Adding Zoom to the mix, we now have many families video-chatting almost every day.  We have people performing at home and sending in videos.  The “people who live here” love it!  They don’t always understand how they can see their loved one on a tablet in front of them, and they especially don’t get how they can see them on their phone – isn’t that for talking not seeing? But they are getting the hang of it.  They truly get immense pleasure from these video calls.  So, please, if you have been doing this –  keep doing it!

I don’t know what it is – maybe the people who live here have just gone through so much in their lives, from World War II to the Korean War, from the Vietnam War to 9-11,  or even just remembering their parents going through the depression –  but they are strong.  This is a different kind of crisis for them – this isn’t about food or shelter or money.  They still have their routines, they still have three meals a day, their naps, take their medications, banter with the staff, and watch their favorite programs.  And so far, they aren’t thinking too much about getting the virus, and the results it could have.

Yes, there have been inconveniences, they don’t get their visitors, and spending so much time in their room can get a little stir-crazy, and they don’t have their favorite entertainers coming in. But they are chugging through.  Maybe it’s because it’s just been a few weeks, and after you’ve lived for eighty or ninety years or more,  a few weeks is just a speck of time.  But I’ll tell you this, the people who live at Vibrant Life communities may be frail, but they’ve got steel in their veins.  Out of all of us, administration, staff, families and themselves, they have been the rock.  We don’t just have their back, they have ours.

About the author: Dean Solden is the founder and co-owner of Vibrant Life Senior Living, which has four communities throughout the state of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, and outside of Lansing and Toledo.  He is also  professional jazz musician and writer and loves the “people who live” and the “people who work” at Vibrant Life Communities.