By Jeff Brunner
One of the things we value most as humans is the ability to connect with others, to have meaningful interactions with those around us. It’s what makes us truly human.
For many of us, that ability took a big hit at the height of the pandemic when isolation was our default mode. That was especially true for older adults. In skilled nursing communities, we had to devise new ways to keep our residents engaged while at the same time keeping them safe. As a result, the situation has led to opportunities for even greater and more meaningful engagement than ever before.
Prior to the pandemic, it was common for us to gather many residents together in a large room for entertainment, games and parties. Having a hundred or more residents in one location was not uncommon. Once the pandemic hit, such gatherings ceased.
In their place came smaller, more personalized get-togethers for small groups of residents and even one-to-one engagement with staff. For example, I meet regularly with a resident of St. Ann’s Home to help him write letters to his nephew in Michigan who’s become his pen pal. There are also residents with whom I sit and play cards one-on-one, giving us time to chat and hear what’s on each other’s minds.
‘All of us look forward to the time when we can again hold parties in the auditorium and Sunday socials in the lobby. But we know that more intimate, personalized engagement is good for our residents and their quality of life, so it’s an idea whose time has come.’
Similarly, my colleagues continue to meet individually with our residents to help them make Zoom calls to family members. While this practice began out of necessity during lockdown and families can now visit in person, many keep the Zoom relationship going. I know of a woman at St. Ann’s who continues to have calls with her granddaughter in California; she loves the face-to-face contact and has built a close relationship with a cherished but far-away relative.
Research shows that for older adults, staying engaged in enjoyable activities supports their physical and mental health. Further, when elders have a say in what’s happening around them, the effects can be even greater. Small-group engagement makes this possible.
With a group of six or eight residents, my colleagues and I can listen more closely to what each says as they direct us in supporting their choices. We planted apple trees on the St. Ann’s campus after it was suggested by a fifth floor resident who was an apple farmer; this has led to excursions, when weather permits, to observe the growth of the trees and await apple-picking time. Small groups also rotate in taking care of the raised-bed vegetable gardens on campus, a treasured activity for those who loved caring for their own gardens.
Many skilled nursing communities began transitioning to smaller, more personalized engagement well before the pandemic, the benefits to our residents having been well documented. The newly renovated living space at St. Ann’s Home, for example, has a maximum of 15 residents sharing a “household,” the space in which most of their daily living takes place.
Residents in each household are familiar with their neighbors, which means they’re more comfortable and more inclined to actively participate. When we get together as a group, the feeling is similar to meeting friends for coffee: intimate, low key, and pleasant.
Small groups also make spontaneity possible. I can visit with a household and ask, “What do you want to do today? Uno, tabletop bowling or something else?” It’s fun for the residents (and for me!) and puts the choice in their hands. It also wouldn’t work with a large group, the point being that we are focusing on the integrity of the group rather than the size.
All of us look forward to the time when we can again hold parties in the auditorium and Sunday socials in the lobby. But we know that more intimate, personalized engagement is good for our residents and their quality of life, so it’s an idea whose time has come.