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Moving to Senior Living During the Coronavirus Pandemic: What to Expect

Claire Samuels
By Claire SamuelsJuly 27, 2020

The decision to move an elderly loved one into an assisted living or memory care community is always complex, but families of aging adults in need of care during the coronavirus pandemic are faced with unique questions. Is moving even possible? What will the transition be like?

Up to 96% of senior living communities are accepting new residents as of July 2020, according to a survey conducted by A Place for Mom. Policies are changing rapidly and vary by state and community.

“While we do have heightened safety procedures to welcome new residents to our communities, we’re still very much here to help aging loved ones,” says Christy Van Der Westhuizen, vice president of sales and marketing at MBK Senior Living, based in Irvine, California.

Learn about typical COVID-19 moving and quarantine policies, how communities make new residents feel welcome, visiting and communication updates, and nine creative ways senior living communities combat social isolation. 

What to expect before, during, and after the move

Family members and moving companies are helping elderly loved ones move to senior living every day, following extra safety precautions. 

Before the move. Preparation is always useful in a move, especially during the pandemic. Keep in mind these six tips for helping elderly loved ones move. Additionally, be sure to:

  • Ask for measurements, pictures, and walk-through videos ahead of time to predetermine where furniture, art, and belongings will go.
  • Schedule your moving day with the senior living community in advance. It may be difficult to change at the last minute.
  • Make sure your moving company is equipped with personal protective equipment (PPE) and is willing to work in a senior living environment — some movers aren’t currently working with elderly adults.
  • Have easy access to documentation of your loved one’s COVID-19 test, as well as other medical records.

During the move. Most senior living providers have updated move-in guidelines, such as:

  • Designated time slots to allow current residents to socially distance
  • Reserved elevators for moving families, where possible
  • 6-foot distancing and full PPE required for everyone entering the community
  • Common surfaces thoroughly disinfected before and after contact
  • No more than two family members present at move-in
  • Temperature checks and screening for all movers and family

After the move. Staff help new residents disinfect and clean their homes and settle in. Then, new residents must self-quarantine based on the community’s requirements. Though protocols differ by location and company, most communities take steps to prevent exposure and increase resident safety, such as:

  • Self-quarantine for seven to 14 days after arrival
  • Daily symptom screenings for residents throughout the two-week period
  • A coronavirus test seven and 14 days after move-in
  • Meals delivered directly to the new resident’s apartment
  • No travel outside the community for the first two weeks

New welcoming efforts help seniors feel at home

Adjusting to senior living is different without a greeting committee of residents and the opportunity to meet new friends over dinner. But that doesn’t mean elderly loved ones won’t feel welcome.

“The staff learns interests and preferences to tailor experiences,” says Michael Bardelmeier, senior vice president of operations at MBK Senior Living. Based on those interests, the community sets up socially distanced or virtual small groups to welcome seniors. Residents are cared for and entertained, even during the self-quarantine period:

  • Resident-selected meals are prepared and delivered to the door, along with inspiring messages, notes, or flowers.
  • Puzzles, games, and books are provided.
  • Introductions are made and friendships are formed via technology, letters, and shared interests.

When the resident can reenter the community — typically after a negative COVID test and a period of 72 hours to 14 days — they’re often already a part of social groups and accustomed to their new homes.

Moving into memory care during COVID-19

People with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia need extra help remembering important hygienic practices, such as hand washing. They may also not understand the need for a mask and could become agitated with strictly enforced rules. Because of this, memory care communities require unique precautions during and after move-in, according to Van Der Westhuizen:

  • After moving, memory care residents may have a shorter quarantine period, which could be as little as 72 hours.
  • Since they need full-time care, new residents with dementia are assigned their own personal caregiver during their quarantine period at some communities.
  • In some communities, staff members work exclusively in memory care during the pandemic, ensuring there’s no crossover between residents in different parts of the community. 
  • Memory care activities have been adapted for social distancing, with residents participating in small groups 6 feet apart.
  • Staff members focus on body language and other forms of non-verbal communication to connect with and comfort memory care residents without physical touch. 

Visiting loved ones during the coronavirus

“Our top question from families right now is ‘When will visitor restrictions ease up?’” says Van Der Westhuizen.

Visiting policies in senior living communities are constantly changing to comply with local and state guidelines. According to a July 2020 A Place for Mom survey of communities currently allowing visitors:

  • Nearly three quarters of communities accepting visitors permit outdoor visits only, with social distancing.
  • 65% are requiring PPE, like masks and gloves.
  • 61% conduct screening surveys before family visits.
  • Almost all communities restrict visits to family members and medical professionals.

Many communities have developed creative visiting ideas to maximize connection and safety, such as:

  • Safe visit structures. Pacifica Senior Living provided each of their communities a large, clear screen for visits with family and friends. “There have been tears, overwhelming joy at seeing loved ones,” says Leslie Quintanar, regional director of operations at Pacifica, based in San Diego, California. “It’s been beautiful to witness the connections and see the happiness it brings.” 
  • Coffee dates. CRISTA senior living communities in Washington encourage coffee dates through the window: A resident enjoys their coffee or tea indoors, while loved ones sip theirs sitting outside. They talk on speaker phone. It’s like a visit to a coffee shop (minus the lines and prices!).
  • “Hug stations.” Communities across the country have adapted shower curtains, long rubber gloves, and other materials to create air-tight barriers with arm holes. These “hug stations” allow outdoor visits to include a loved one’s touch.
  • Curbside chats. American House Senior Living communities set up stations outside their communities for residents to sit in the shade and share snacks with loved ones who remain in their cars at a 6-foot distance.
Pacifica Senior Living provided communities a clear screen for visits with family, friends.

Family communication in senior living communities during COVID-19

Families understand the need for safety precautions, but still want to stay connected with loved ones and help ease their transition to senior living. In communities where local and state and guidelines allow visits, staying connected with family means creating safe spaces and guidelines for in-person meetings.

We’re seeing the very best in people during this pandemic, with team members truly showing their talents.

Christy Van Der Westhuizen, vice president of sales and marketing at MBK Senior Living

In communities with visitor restrictions, it means using available resources to keep residents in touch with their loved ones. Team members help residents use video-conferencing applications such as FaceTime or Zoom on tablets and phones.

Sunrise Senior Living, a group of over 300 communities based in McLean, Virginia, suggests other creative ideas for connecting with relatives:

  • Write letters and cards. “Snail mail” is a throwback to residents’ younger years — and a fun way to stay in touch. Written letters and cards are more personal than emails, and even children can participate with drawings and artwork. Bonus points? Consider writing letters to residents you don’t know.
  • Send care packages. Activities, books, and favorite foods will bring a smile to residents who can’t go out and shop during the pandemic. Sunrise asks that all deliveries are dropped off with a staff member outside the community, and that only prepackaged food is included. 
  • Make family videos.  Ask relatives across the world to send brief video clips, then compile them all to share with your loved one. Make them fun and creative — “anything that makes you laugh will make them laugh too,” according to Sunrise.

9 ways senior living communities combat senior isolation and loneliness

Senior living communities have risen to the challenge to create safe ways to battle isolation and loneliness during the coronavirus pandemic. “We’re seeing the very best in people during this pandemic, with team members truly showing their talents,” says Van Der Westhuizen.

From activity directors to dining services, staff members at senior living communities have developed new, unique ways for elderly adults to make friends and thrive:

  • “Residents keep in touch with friends over Zoom. There are virtual book clubs, committee meetings, and social events,” says Van Der Westhuizen. Virtual meetings like these are a great way for loved ones to make friends when they move.
  • Courtyard exercise classes and balcony singalongs allow residents to interact safely. Now that it’s warm out, people can spend time outside at safe distances and soak up some sunshine.
  • Food services departments set up mini “food trucks” for outdoor pickup, with options like tacos and ice cream served from decorated carts.
  • Caregivers perform concerts, lead exercises, and dress up for fun activities in hallways. From fashion shows to church services, hallways previously used to get from point A to point B are being revitalized.
  • Personalized packages of games, puzzles, and crafts are delivered to residents with inspirational messages and individualized notes each morning.
  • American House Senior Living engages with families using social media. TikTok videos and Facebook live feeds let families see their loved ones enjoying socially distanced activities in real time.
  • Communities buy plants or beta fish for residents’ rooms to encourage a sense of purpose and companionship. Even caring for something small can make a huge difference in this time of limited interaction.
  • Activities directors create friendly competitions — like remote-control car racing, door decorating, or bingo — that work with social distancing.
  • Communities offer virtual “trips” and exotic theme days to add excitement without exposure. If you can’t travel to Hawaii, a socially distanced luau with tropical drinks may be the next best thing!

Curious about policies and activities at senior living communities near you? A Place for Mom’s Senior Living Advisors can answer questions and connect you with local communities to learn more.

Claire Samuels
Claire Samuels
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