Even before the first COVID-19 case was reported in Loudoun County in early March, administrators and the staffs of the many local senior care centers were gearing up for a serious health threat. In the months that followed they faced fast-changing, previously unimaginable challenges, periods of sadness and fear, and displays of amazing creativity and heroism.
During National Assisted Living Week, a time when senior communities around the country are encouraged to celebrate the individuals they serve and inform the public about this distinctive aspect of long-term care, Loudoun Now invited industry leaders to share their reflections on this unprecedented time.
Much of the year has been spent with everyone learning about a new virus and how it spreads, keeping up with the frequent changes in information about how to keep people protected, and getting everyone to adopt new behaviors that would curb the spread and—most importantly—keep it out of communities with fragile residents.
For many families, those harsh restrictions on in-person visitations were hardships.
“Our residents and families have been apart for many months trying to cope with this pandemic,” said Jill Adams, the director of nursing at the Inova Loudoun Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. “This has been extremely hard on both sides and understanding the importance and reasons, we must take these steps in order to keep their loved ones safe.”
“The families have been extremely understanding in these uncertain times with a pandemic that puts our population at the most risk. We cannot express our true gratitude enough to our families for their patience that has been given as we follow guidelines given to us by the state of Virginia,” Adams said.
It also has been a challenge to staff members who didn’t sign up for the unknowns—and dangers—of a pandemic virus, but administrators said they stepped up to take on the challenges.
“Those of us who have been in the trenches, we’re not afraid. We protect ourselves,” said Mary L. Vorpahl, the administrator of Heritage Hall in Leesburg. “It is so rewarding to help people each day. It is a calling.”
“From unit staff that has taken extra time for residents that are having more trouble than others coping without seeing their families, to extra hours worked to ensure quality staffing, trying to make the residents’ environment is as normal as can be expected, to learning as much as they can about the virus in order to prevent them from bringing it into the facility, the staff really have gone the extra mile,” Adams said.
“All the staff has made a true effort to protect our residents at all times. Our infection preventionist and quality control nurse has spent hours ensuring that our Emergent Infectious Disease policy is up to date and as effective as possible to maintain the safety of our residents and staff. Our education coordinator and unit managers have worked tirelessly to ensure they have provided the education to the staff and residents to maintain a safe COVID-free environment,” Adams said.
The support from the community also has been important. From donations of snacks from church congregations to pizza deliveries from the Leesburg Police Department to a resident’s sister making hundreds of cloth masks staff members have been appreciative of the outpouring. Even roadside yards signs proclaiming support for healthcare workers have had cheering impact.
“The residents and the families have been incredible, and the community outreach has been like no other community. It’s just been uplifting,” Vorpahl said. “That meant a lot to us. That was really cool during those really tough times.”
More so than in typical times, the healthcare workers served as extended family members as visitors were kept out of senior living centers because of the safety protocols. For most, family interactions were limited to Facetime calls or meetings through a ground-floor window. Heritage Hall built a special meeting shelter in the courtyard.
“When you take care of people for years, day in and day out, they become family and our mission statement is our family exists to take care of yours. We truly try to embrace that,” said Heritage Hall Nursing Director Lynn Winemiller.
“The families are so appreciative to have us taking care of their loved ones because they can’t, as much as they would like to, because of their clinical needs. Because of the trust and the confidence they have in us, they feel blessed that their loved one is here,” Vorpahl said. “And we heard that more and more from the start of this pandemic.”
Like many in the industry, Winemiller is a longtime veteran who has weathered many storms. HIV, MRSA, even Ebola, are now known quantities with well-established treatments.
“This is a whole other animal, this a pandemic. None of us have lived through that,” she said. “I think in some respects it made us stronger. There were days when there were tears and exhaustion and all that, but we’re survivors.”
As the communities settle into more normal routines following the outbreaks during the spring and summer, many healthcare workers are expressing gratitude and want to return the support they’ve received from others.
Vorpahl is thinking about the police officers who have stopped in to support her center.
“With what the police are dealing with right now, we wanted to reach out and give back to them,” she said. “They have been so supportive of this building and helpful in all ways. They’re probably going through the storm that we and all the other facilities in the area were going through [during the outbreaks]. Our hearts go out to them as well.”
Nevertheless, Vorpahl said, it’s a great time to be working in the industry, as there are fewer jobs available that are more in-demand and more rewarding.
“To have an essential job is heartwarming. You drive down main street and see all the businesses that are closed and all the families who are really struggling. I just feel blessed that I picked the career I did,” she said.
The challenge isn’t over yet and more support will be needed.
“Continue to bear with us through this pandemic and understand that we have strict guidelines that must be followed in order to maintain a COVID-free facility. We thank each and every one of them that has put their trust in us to ensure their loved ones are safe and know that we are doing everything we can to keep them healthy,” Adams said.
Meeting the Dining Challenges
At Spring Arbor of Leesburg, the staff and residents have been spared a coronavirus outbreak so far, but continue to be put to the test to keep the community safe.
Administrators highlight the contributions of the dining services staff led by Darrin Gauthier. Always offering a variety of dining choices and specialized diets for the 91 residents, Gauthier and his team had to navigate the seemingly constant changing evidence and guidance during the pandemic. The dining room evolved from linen and china to disposables, and from intimacy to six-foot separating diners, and finally to in-suite dining service.
“Our residents were always positive about the quality of the meals, the presentation and the speed and courtesy of the dining staff. Darrin ensured very early in the process we had all the food, supplies and personal protection equipment needed for the first six months until delivery lines normalized. Our dining service team delivers excellence every day but during this time they have delivered a warm, nurturing consistency of care to our residents that craved comfort,” said Marketing Director Susan Balinger.
Opening During a Pandemic: It Works in Loudoun
Lansdowne Heights, a new memory care community, opened in June at the height of the coronavirus outbreak—not ideal timing.
Access restrictions meant they couldn’t offer in-person tours to families, particularly unfortunate because many adult day care services at community senior centers had closed down. Instead, administrators relied on support from the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce and others to help get established in the market.
The timing of the opening did allow the center’s new residents to avoid a quarantine period and the staff was able to keep them spread out with social distancing policies.
“They were able to enjoy our walking areas, dining and social areas and not be forced to stay in their studio,” said Marketing Director Sandra Fields. “We knew that having a person with memory loss confined to their studio or apartment would not be healthy, could cause behavioral issues, and a feeling of isolation and abandonment. Having a well-versed administrator and a hands-on medical director are important to a community’s success.”
The new community is located at 19520 Sandridge Way in Lansdowne. Learn more at lansdowneheights.com.