News & Features

Senior-Care Facilities Find Creative Ways to Connect Residents to the Community

Mailed children’s artwork and letters, parades, virtual conversations, music and interactions through windows bring joy to elderly residents amid strict visitation restrictions

Home to populations especially vulnerable to COVID-19, assisted-living facilities and nursing homes have enforced strict visitation rules throughout the pandemic, largely cutting off in-person connections between residents and their family and friends.

In an effort to foster interaction and brighten residents’ days, senior-care facilities across the Flathead Valley have implemented a variety of avenues through which residents can keep in touch with loved ones, acquaintances and the broader community, including virtual conversations, apps such as Carely, face-to-face interactions through windows, drive-by car shows and parades, mailed gifts and more.

The Springs at Whitefish set up a large plexiglass window encased in wood on Mother’s Day for residents to visit with family. It was so popular that a second one was constructed, with both still in operation, giving memory-care and assisted-living residents opportunities to speak with loved ones safely without face coverings.

Nicole Jemming, executive director of The Springs at Whitefish, said the “Looking Glass” has produced numerous touching moments, including a memory-care resident who wasn’t able to see his wife in person until the window was erected. Now they see each other three times a week.

“There have been a lot of tears of joy,” Jemming said. “People are so excited to see each other. It’s pretty beautiful.”

The Springs at Whitefish also accepts mailed cards, letters and artwork to 1001 River Lakes Pkwy, Whitefish, MT 59937, or can be reached at (406) 862-6322.

In Kalispell, Prestige Assisted Living invites community members to “spread cheer and uplift spirits during this unprecedented time” by sending “positive notes, warm wishes and fun artwork” to residents. These can include cards, letters, drawings and homemade art. The items are sorted and disinfected prior to delivery to residents.

Prestige also held a drive-by car show on July 23, with vehicles adorned with cheerful messages from loved ones and residents waving signs with their own messages.

Marisa Payne, product specialist with Prestige, said the Kalispell community has always been supportive of residents, and she has been heartened to see that continue through the pandemic. Residents particularly enjoy receiving artwork from children, and Payne said staff members are similarly delighted to see “the residents’ smiles and the way their faces light up when they remember they’re cared about.”

Prestige recommends that messages be handwritten in large, easy-to-read print, and are “positive, kind and heartfelt.” Letters should be undated. If it’s a drawing or painting by a child, Prestige encourages including the kid’s name and age at the bottom.

Due to heightened precautions, anybody bringing items to Prestige will be asked to meet a staff member at the entrance. Letters are opened and screened unless it’s a private message sent from a family member or friend of the resident.

Community members can also mail items to Prestige Assisted Living at Kalispell, 125 Glenwood Dr., Kalispell, MT 59901, or call (406) 756-1818 for more information.

Gov. Steve Bullock announced in late June loosened restrictions permitting limited visitation at senior-care operations, but following a COVID-19 outbreak at Canyon Creek Memory Care in Billings, the governor directed the state health department to issue an emergency rule stipulating that assisted-living facilities must participate in testing requirements in order to allow visitors.

The emergency rule brings assisted-living facilities in line with existing regulations at nursing homes, and many facilities still don’t and perhaps won’t allow non-essential visitors. Even those that do, upon completion of the requirements, will maintain highly restrictive visitation.

Fifteen residents of Canyon Creek Memory Care in Billings have died from COVID-19 since July 6 after an outbreak at the facility, representing nearly one-third of Montana’s 46 total deaths, as of July 24. Health officials have also reported other deaths at senior-care institutions in Montana, including six at a long-term facility in Shelby early in the pandemic.

A recent Associated Press analysis found that more than half of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have involved nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

The numbers illustrate the elderly’s vulnerabilities to the disease and the need for strict safety rules instituted at senior-care facilities.

Despite the visitation limitations, stories have emerged nationwide of people getting creative to connect with residents. In the Flathead Valley, those stories include residents at Immanuel Lutheran Communities’ skilled care center enjoying a drive-by honk and wave parade on Fourth of July and a music therapist performing weekly shows with her guitar outside the windows of memory-support residents.

Immanuel Lutheran Communities also accepts mailed gifts for residents through its Smile Program, for which “all ages are encouraged to draw, write, paint or otherwise create their note of cheer to bring a smile to a resident’s face.”

“These pieces of cheer are to be an uplifting note, poem or letter of encouragement to let them know you are thinking about them at this time,” Immanuel Lutheran states.

Items for the Smile Program can be mailed to 40 Claremont St., Kalispell, MT 59901, and questions can be directed to Hannah Brown, director of resident services, at (406) 752-9612 ex. 1304 or hbrown@ilcorp.org.

Kalispell Regional Healthcare’s Brendan House has been accepting community outreach throughout the pandemic, and Administrator Kelly Bilau said in some cases it has blossomed into cross-country pen-pal relationships between kids and residents.

Community members can call the activity staff at (406) 751-6517 or mail items to Brendan House at 350 Conway Dr., Kalispell, MT 59901.

Bilau said the skilled nursing facility also coordinates conversations virtually on devices and offers a visitation room called Connection Point in which residents can speak with loved ones through a window. Brendan House is also working to launch an outdoors visitation program but must first finalize a weekly testing plan for staff.

“These connections are so incredibly sweet to watch during these difficult times,” Bilau said when Connection Point was launched in April. “I am grateful for staff members that are willing to step up and make these extra efforts to allow this special form of communication for our residents/patients and their loved ones.”

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