DEER ISLE — A year into the pandemic, many of us are still grappling with the ways life has changed. Perhaps one of the most affected environments is that of nursing homes, where residents have had to remain socially distanced from their neighbors and peers and, at times, have been unable to visit with family members.
This has called for staff to get creative and come up with ways to lift the spirits of their residents, all while hope glimmers in the distance: continued vaccinations and the possibility that restrictions may ease to allow for more gatherings with loved ones.
The Island Nursing Home on Deer Isle experienced a devastating outbreak of COVID-19 last November and December that ultimately claimed the lives of 14 residents.
While the facility experienced what Administrator Matthew Trombley called a “crisis event,” he said residents’ spirits were declining prior to the outbreak due to feelings of isolation.
“That’s our biggest opinion as to what is causing the greatest decline,” he said. “People just want to be able to see their loved ones.”
The nursing home does have a separate building for visits and has been able to resume small group activities such as bingo, arts and crafts and physical exercises as positivity rates in Hancock County decrease. Safety guidelines such as mask-wearing and social distancing are followed.
Wings of the residence have gotten into the competitive spirit with decoration contests.
While staff and residents at Island Nursing Home are fully vaccinated, the facility continues to adhere to safety guidelines and will continue to do so until it receives new guidance from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other public health officials. However, Trombley said that there is hope among residents that precautions will ease as vaccines become more widely available throughout the state.
“Certainly, there’s hope. Hope can really drive people,” he said.
At Courtland Rehabilitation and Living Center in Ellsworth, the past year “has been a challenge,” said Administrator Mark Stewart.
The Bucksport Road facility is following all safety guidance from the Maine CDC and public health officials and had to stop communal dining and group functions.
With positivity rates declining in Hancock County, Stewart said, “We have been able to get back to small group things,” which include groups of five or six meeting for lunch and family visits with up to two family members.
While the family visits have been under strict guidelines, including social distancing, wearing personal protective equipment and staying behind clear plexiglass, the visits have been “a big lift to [residents’] spirits,” Stewart said.
The lunch gatherings, which Stewart said have “just done wonders,” have been in the dining room, decorated for recent holidays such as Valentine’s Day, Mardi Gras and upcoming Saint Patrick’s Day.
Stewart notes the “smiles on [residents’] faces,” who are “happy to be able to see their friends.”
Back at their rooms, residents participate in “hallway bingo” and craft projects from their doorways, activities administered by Courtland staff.
“They have really had to get creative,” Stewart said of his staff.
Meanwhile, with spring around the corner and vaccination clinics at the center complete, Stewart is also awaiting what are hopefully relaxed restrictions from the Maine CDC.
For Birch Bay Village in Bar Harbor, maintaining social interactions has been critical throughout the pandemic.
“Socialization has been what’s been really important for our residents,” while maintaining safety protocols set by the Maine CDC and public health officials, said Susanne Hopkins, the facility’s marketing director.
As a result, Birch Bay Village’s administration, led by Executive Director Peter Sullivan, has taken the past year to pioneer a new pandemic-influenced program, the Safer Visitor Program. Sullivan has even been invited to speak about the program nationally.
The program allows for eligible residents, including those with dementia, who are especially struggling with social isolation, to have loved ones become volunteers with Birch Bay Village.
As volunteers, these loved ones follow the same testing precautions as the staff and can meet with residents two to three times a week, more than what is currently allowed for the general public.
The program includes biweekly updates from the family members to track how residents are responding to the visits.
“It’s been a program that has been fairly successful across the board,” said Director of Programs and Resident Engagement James Hoke.
Additionally, the facility has maintained its music therapy program, where a board-certified music therapist engages with residents.
When coronavirus cases were spiking, the program went virtual. As positivity rates drop in Hancock County, groups have been able to meet again while social distancing.
As singing is classified as a “super-spreader activity,” groups have focused on playing hand-held instruments.
“I think it’s really unique that we’ve been able to find a creative way to do this,” Hopkins said.
Indoor visitation, about 20 visits per day, has resumed, with staff checking in during visitations to make sure guidelines such as mask-wearing and social distancing are followed. Family pets are once again allowed back in the building. Hopkins said the facility is trying to be generous with visitation while remaining cautious.
Meanwhile, the facility’s outdoor, quarter-mile walking trail has been maintained throughout the winter so residents can enjoy the fresh air.
“I see people walking out there every day, bundled up,” Hopkins said.
Like Courtland and Island Nursing Home, staff and residents of Birch Bay Village, who are fully vaccinated, are also trying to be optimistic.
“We are hopeful. The residents are hopeful. I think that mentality helps us a lot,” Hoke said.