Virus prompts eldercare facilities to tighten rules


PROJECT INDEPENDENCE PARTICIPANT Marlene Hoag gets some hand washing assistance from Elderly Services staffer Vanessa Wolff on Thursday. Elderly Services and other senior-care organizations in the county have enacted new visitation rules and more rigorous hygiene practices in an effort to protect clients from the coronavirus. Independent photo/John S. McCright
For a place that prides itself on holding hands and giving hugs, we are struggling to figure out how to shower affection on people and not be spreading germs. — Elderly Services Executive Director Joanne Corbett

MIDDLEBURY — Local organizations serving the elderly have begun to restrict access to their facilities in an effort to prevent their senior clients from contracting the coronavirus.

The coronavirus — which causes the disease COVID-19 — had not officially touched Addison County as the Independent went to press on Friday. But its impact is being felt in terms of events cancellations and consumers changing their habits in an effort to reduce mingling with large groups of people, where the virus could be spread.

While the majority of coronavirus cases worldwide have been described as “mild,” according to the national Centers for Disease Control (CDC), tracking of the disease suggests the elderly — especially those with chronic conditions — are most at risk of getting very sick from the coronavirus.

Vermont’s population is among the oldest of any state in the union, and Middlebury is home to several organizations specializing in services to the elderly. Among them are the Residence at Otter Creek and EastView retirement communities, Helen Porter Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center (see sidebar) and Elderly Services Inc.

The Independent contacted officials from each of those organizations to see what steps they were taking to reduce the chances for contagion. The list is quite long.

Based at 112 Exchange St., Elderly Services Inc. provides education, outreach and direct services to Addison County seniors. Its flagship program is the Project Independence adult daycare program that draws elders from far and wide. Project Independence runs Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; and Saturday, 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Elderly Services Executive Director Joanne Corbett said the nonprofit is trying to make sure the coronavirus won’t force Project Independence to suspend services.

“A lot of families depend on us to care for their elderly loved one during the day so that the family can continue to be at their jobs,” she said. “We are working hard to avoid any closure of Project Independence so that families will have the reliable care they need during the day.”

Corbett outlined some of the steps her organization is taking in order to reduce chances for contagion among elderly clients:

•  Most of the more than 100 entertainment volunteers that each month regale seniors at Project Independence have been asked to stay away, for now. 

•  Most of the Elderly Services’ “ESI College Lifelong Learning” classes have been cancelled.

•  Anyone who seeks entry into the Elderly Services building is screened.

“The screening asks about any possible symptoms related to coronavirus,” Corbett explained. “The screening also asks about symptoms in family or friends. And lastly we have to ask about recent travel by family, friends, or by the person entering our building.”

•  All program staff and participants are being asked to wash their hands thoroughly and frequently, and to keep their hands away from their face.

“Eldercare organizations like us, serving a good percentage of people with memory problems, face challenges in hand washing,” Corbett noted. “Our staff need to plan and carry out hand washing for many of our members since they cannot remember to do it on their own. We do this all the time, but now we are taking it to a new level of frequency and seriousness.”

•  Elderly Services nurses are monitoring all the sick calls from members’ families to screen for any symptoms of concern.

“We have instituted intensive sanitation measures — above and beyond our usual superb cleaning,” Corbett said. “As everyone knows, this involves frequent wiping down of all surfaces throughout the building, and in our case of all walkers and wheelchairs as well.”

The new protocols are necessary, but a little heartbreaking.

“For a place that prides itself on holding hands and giving hugs, we are struggling to figure out how to shower affection on people and not be spreading germs,” Corbett said. “One of our nurses says that we need to lavish both people’s hands with sanitizer before holding hands.”

STEPS AT THE RESIDENCE

The Residence at Otter Creek at 350 Lodge Road is one of 27 retirement communities owned and operated nationwide by LCB Senior Living LLC. The company has a combined total of around 3,000 workers serving roughly 2,000 elderly residents, according to LCB spokesman Ted Doyle.

Here are some of the major steps the Residence has taken to keep its communities safe from the coronavirus, according to Doyle:

•  A “sweeping new visitation policy” that bars entry to all non-essential personnel. That policy calls for all visitors to submit to temperature checks and questioning about whether they’re sick or have been in close contact with others who might have been ill.

“If they themselves have any kind of flu or cold symptoms or have been around people who have, we’re asking them to leave,” Doyle said.

Those allowed to enter must first sanitize their hands.

•  Any non-essential maintenance is being deferred until further notice, according to Doyle.

•  Families are being asked to limit their visits. They’re also being encouraged to connect virtually to their elderly loved one through Skype and/or FaceTime.

•  Employees are being “continuously monitored and screened for temperature and potential exposure,” according to Doyle. “We’re promoting hygiene in a big way with all our associates — asking them to frequently sanitize their hands and keep their hands clean.”

•  All resident trips to museums and other outside activities have been cancelled as have been all large-group meetings.

On the brighter side, Doyle believes senior living/care facilities are well positioned to deal with health crises.

“In a lot of ways, our environment is advantageous, in the sense that senior communities are dealing with flu outbreaks and colds all the time,” Doyle said. “It’s kind of a common occurrence anywhere you’ve got groups of people living together. We have built-in systems to contain, in the case of a viral outbreak. Also, it’s a situation where all the residents’ daily needs are provided for in the building, as opposed to if you lived at home and you’d have to drive to the grocery store, or have strangers coming to your house who haven’t been taking the kinds of precautions we’re taking with residents.”

AT EASTVIEW

Lauren Bierman is director of health services for EastView, located at 100 Eastview Terrace, near the Porter Medical Center campus. Like the Residence, EastView is stressing clean hands and sanitized surfaces throughout the retirement community complex. Employees are being trained on hygiene protocols. Residents who have a hard time washing their own hands are getting help with that chore.

“Through the flu season, we monitor residents daily — even three times a day — for temperatures and respiratory symptoms,” Bierman said. “People are not coming in if they have fevers or respiratory symptoms. Our housekeeping team and our health services team are vigilant in wiping down all surfaces, including handrails and elevator buttons, phones and pens, several times a day.”

Residents who are coughing are encouraged to stay in their rooms.

EastView, until further notice, won’t publicize its events to the community at large in order to minimize chances for contagion.

“We’ll be limiting outside visitors and trying to offer our events online so that people can participate over a live platform — like Zoom — if we have music events or speakers, so we can still open that up to the community without having them come in,” Bierman said.

Meanwhile, Addison County Home Health & Hospice officials continue their critical mission of visiting more than 450 homebound clients each day. Many of those clients are seniors. Maureen Conrad, marketing and development manager for ACHH&H, said the agency’s providers are doing a lot of over-the-phone screening of patients before visiting. This can flag potential coronavirus patients before a physical visit is made.

Conrad said all ACHH&H workers are well-versed in hygiene protocols for themselves and their patients.

“It’s business as usual here, and we’d like the public to know that,” Conrad said.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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