​After a devastating storm, the signs of life—children going to school, lights coming on after days of power outages, neighbors talking and laughing—are powerful reminders of people’s resilience and the importance of their connections to each other. Even though the pandemic isn’t completely over, it has led to some changes, innovations, and inspiring stories that should be embraced and remembered moving forward.

One impact of COVID-19 has been a bit of a double-edged sword. The pandemic has shown a spotlight on nursing homes and other long term care facilities. While this has brought some negative and often unfair media coverage, it also presents opportunities.

As James Wright, MD, CMD, a multifacility medical director in Virginia, says, “For a brief period of time, the public was more interested than ever in what goes on in nursing homes, especially with staffing. If we take this interest and harness it into legislative and regulatory changes, we can translate this into better funding and staffing.”

The Temporary, the Timely, and the Timeless

“The past 18 months were the time of the activities department,” Wright says. “They came in and turned visiting rooms into something beautiful, they devised ways for residents to connect, interact, play, laugh, and have fun without leaving their rooms.”

Facilities not only made creative use of their indoor spaces but the great outdoors as well. Wright says, “Last November one of our facilities had a Thanksgiving meal outside. The temperature was a little cool, but we had an open tent with heaters. Seating was socially distanced, and tables were beautifully set with decorations and plants.” It gave residents, families, and staff a safe opportunity to get together and, given the circumstances, truly appreciate the day of giving, he says.

“We have celebrations of life,” says Trish Childress, LCSW-S, ACHP-SW, a social worker and director of supportive services. For instance, one man was able to see his family for the first time in 15 months after losing his wife. Some people were afraid it would make him sad, but Childress says, “He was excited to have this opportunity to celebrate her life with his loved ones.”

Supporting One Another

Elsewhere, Childress says, “We run a pet loss support group, and we usually only have one or two members a month. But during COVID, people’s grief at the loss of their pets was so profound that we now have five to six people in the group each week.” This demonstrates how important pets are to people, especially during a crisis like a pandemic, she says, and recognizing and honoring the loss of a pet can be very healing and help people bond over shared losses.

“Most of what was put in place was temporary, but many good things should—and will—continue,” says Wright. “As a result, we will be so much better for the immediate future, at least, in preventing the spread of communicable disease and avoiding isolation when quarantines are necessary. Flu season won’t be as dangerous, thanks to all of our efforts during COVID, and we can possibly keep other infections out as well.”

Leaning on Each Other

Jasmine Wadkins“One blessing from the pandemic was that we were able to lean on each other,” says Jasmine Wadkins, LCSW, CDP, BF-CMT, CCTP, CEA, director of behavioral health services operations and education at Signature HealthCARE. “We’ve focused on cross-training, and people aren’t operating as much in specific roles. Instead, they’ve been growing and stretching beyond traditional roles and responsibilities.”

Barbara Resnick, PhD, CRNP, professor at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, says they were able to engage the whole team in care plan meetings. “I also think COVID raised awareness of some aspects of end-of-life planning and decisions about going out to the hospital,” she says. “We also had more of an opportunity to talk about other end-of-life decisions, things like nutrition and hydration and what to do if someone won’t or can’t eat or drink.”

The pandemic also gave organizations a chance to remind staff that they are cared for and supported. For instance, Signature created a food bank that employees, their family members, and other stakeholders could access. “Our leadership wanted to make sure that no one went hungry because they couldn’t afford food or get out to shop for groceries,” Wadkins says.

Finding and Sharing Joy

Even in the midst of the pandemic, Wadkins suggests, it is important for people to find joy and laughter. “We made sure residents were safe, but we had to find ways to have fun and give them a sense of meaning and purpose.” For instance, she says that the company holds senior Olympics every year, and starting last year, instead of cancelling the events they’ve held them virtually.

Creative thinking and finding new sources of entertainment were common themes at facilities nationwide. For example, at Westminster in Austin, Texas, residents became interested in watching construction teams work on a nearby building.

Staff set up chairs at the third floor window so residents could oversee the action and enjoy a unique connection with the outside world during the isolation of the pandemic. Residents, who called themselves the “third-floor admirers,” even exchanged dozens of letters and even some gifts with the construction workers.

Last Christmas, country singer J.D. Shelburne livestreamed an exclusive concert for Signature residents and staff. Even those who aren’t fans of the music genre found the event enjoyable.

“To have something done just for us was so special, and music is always an important part of holiday celebrations,” Wadkins says.

Telehealth: Here to Stay?

There have been a lot of positives in terms of opportunities for telehealth, Resnick says. “For one, it provided more timely access and the ability to address problems quicker,” she says.

While most people would agree that telehealth was essential and a godsend during the pandemic, some offer caution about its use moving forward. For instance, Wright says, “The older people get and the more cognitive issues they have, the less effective this technology is.”

Of course, telehealth visits weren’t the only use of technology to touch lives.

“One woman became very tearful on the phone. She hadn’t seen her husband in months, and they were preparing to celebrate their anniversary,” Childress says.

“We were able to walk her through turning on her phone’s camera so that she could have a video call with her husband. It was so meaningful and comforting for her to see her husband after so long.”

She adds, “There are probably a million of those remarkable stories of people digging into problems and finding solutions.”