Local seniors navigate social distancing versus social isolation

Bridgewater Retirement Community employee Krista McKean helps resident Kim Kiser video chat with his wife. Courtesy photo.

By Kyle Kirby, contributor

Seniors at Bridgewater Retirement Community (BRC) haven’t let social distancing make them sluggish, thanks to a batch of iPads purchased by BRC about a year and a half ago. Through Wellzesta, a senior living engagement software, residents are able to interact with their fitness instructors from the comfort and safety of their own rooms. 

This past week, the fitness team at BRC condensed their in-person fitness classes into 10-15 minute online segments for independent living residents to practice on their own. The team tailored the workouts so that residents would not need special equipment; instead, they can use chairs, counter tops, and even “a canister of oatmeal, soup cans, paper plates, anything the residents have at home,” said Laura Spicer, director of resident engagement and wellbeing.

“Thanks for the wonderful fitness videos,” said one current resident at BRC, “they brighten our days and keep us limber.” 

Residents also receive weekly video engagements from the administrative staff, which they can then respond to with questions to be answered in the following week’s video. Of course, the iPads also allow residents to use FaceTime and other means of communication to contact their loved ones. 

BRC is currently not allowing any social visitors, and has encouraged their independent living residents to stay home. Only essential visitors, such as food vendors, are currently allowed onto the campus. The team at BRC also delivers groceries and medications to their residents, and staff members are screened everyday with temperature and general symptom checks upon arriving at work.

BRC, however, has had to postpone new move-ins unless absolutely necessary. Crista Cabe, director of marketing and sales, said “we were getting ready to open a 34-unit new apartment building, [with] lots of move-ins scheduled for April through May. We have asked anybody who can delay moving to do so, [but] there are some folks who have sold their homes and would not have a place to live otherwise.”

So, for the time being, “instead of 20 move-ins, we’re going to have seven.” 

Cabe also said these new residents will be subject to the screening protocols as well. She spoke with one future resident who’s accessed some of BRC’s services before moving in.

“She made a point of telling me that they are grateful for the Wellzesta app, and have been using it to follow along with precautionary measures and announcements, as well as doing exercise along with one of our videos on Wellzesta. They are hunkering down at home and appreciate the engagement with the community,” said Cabe. She said the iPads have been heartening to many of their residents.

Since seniors are an at-risk demographic for COVID-19, social distancing is especially important for them. But following those guidelines increases the risk of another problem that seniors face in normal circumstances: social isolation.

Needs assessment reveals concerns about social isolation

Last year, BRC partnered with the Valley Program for Aging Services and Holleran Consulting to conduct a study on senior needs in the city of Harrisonburg, Rockingham County, and Augusta County. The Senior Community Needs Assessment revealed social isolation as one of the biggest issues seniors in the local community face. The report references the U.S. Census Bureau’s statistic that 35 percent of older adults in Rockingham and Augusta Counties live alone.

Of the local 65-and-up community, 750 people responded to the survey. Only 42 percent of community respondents said they have a “regular, daily interaction with their friends, family, or neighbors.”

The study also questioned “key informants:” essentially, any professional workers in senior care, caregivers, and people who are not necessarily professionals, such as family members. Forty-four percent of key informants reported social isolation as a “most pressing issue” in the senior community.

The data gathered by Holleran showed that the other two biggest issues local seniors face are finding affordable housing and navigating the healthcare system.

“We are mission-oriented, not-for-profit, and … we were looking at [what] we could do to help our community. Before we make new services we should know what the community needs,” said Carrie Budd, BRC’s vice president of development and community relations. 

According to the study, transportation issues are a factor in social isolation. Fortunately, almost 90 percent of seniors said that they have someone to take them to appointments and activities. If that relationship is disrupted for whatever reason, public transportation can be useful. However, at the present moment, public transportation is pretty much off limits while seniors self-isolate.

In terms of immediate action, BRC is working to engage residents in social and physical activity. Cabe said that, thanks to technology and the dedication of their team, the residents and their families seem to remain in positive spirits. She shared the following email comment from one resident’s grandchild.

“I would like to applaud the efforts of the nurses and other staff members of Harmony House at Bridgewater,” the email reads. “Nurse Candy, in particular, has kept us updated about Grandma during this difficult time of quarantine and social distancing … as always, we remain so grateful for the entire staff at Harmony House and their selfless giving at a time like this. God bless them all.”

Unfortunately, BRC has had to cancel several upcoming events scheduled to present the Senior Community Needs Assessment. Budd said that their main goal with the study was to raise awareness and spark a conversation in the local community about the future of its aging residents. 

“Right now we’re all putting things we wanted to do on hold; planning for the future a lot,” she said.

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