Special ways we’re supporting seniors’ social needs in a new normal

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When the global pandemic caused a public health emergency at the beginning of 2020, Embrace Living Communities had to reassess how to keep its strong culture of resident engagement while ensuring the health and safety of those who call their communities home.

Each Embrace Living Community employs a social service coordinator, whose focus is on accessing the services available in the greater community and designing programs and services to meet the needs and desires of the community’s residents.

“Embrace Living Communities is resident-focused and integrates housing with services to enhance the independence and quality of life for the residents we are privileged to serve,” says Jennifer Truppa, Director of Social Services and Quality Assurance at Embrace Living. “We have always believed in a resident-centric approach where the services offered promote a caring and safe environment characterized by respectful relationships. These services provide opportunities that nurture meaning, joy, self-sufficiency and choice for residents.”

Embrace Living Communities supports the building of healthy communities on-site and locally within the neighborhood. Social services represent the approach utilized by Embrace Living Communities to organize services and fulfill the role of service-oriented management, which fosters individuals to enhance their quality of life, age in place with dignity and encourage fundamental change of social and economic systems.

Truppa joined Embrace Living in 2020 to oversee and expand the social service program to meet the evolving needs of the residents. “Our goal is to provide an environment where residents thrive as they engage in programs and services designed to meet their needs,” explains Truppa. “Prior to the pandemic, Social Service Coordinators connected residents with resources in the greater community. During the pandemic, we had to reverse that and create a way to bring more of the resources safely to them.”

Bringing community resources to residents

The average age of the residents who call Embrace Living home is 76. Many are vulnerable and don’t have family members close by. “They really rely on us and their neighbors in the community to help them with many of their basic needs,” says Truppa. Those needs include medical care, prescriptions, mental health services and food. “Whatever they normally would go out for, we had to set up systems to bring to them while they sheltered in place.”

The pandemic resulted in reinventing how social services were offered and the need to pivot quickly to effectively respond. Social Service Coordinators recognized that many residents living within their community did not have the food or household supplies they needed to isolate for a week. Social Service Coordinators spent much more time procuring and distributing food, securing PPE and finding alternate ways to deliver services.

With food insecurity being a reality for many senior residents, Embrace Living teams work with local organizations to provide the nourishment they need to remain healthy. “The residents’ ability to stretch their dollars to cover all their basic needs is a challenge,” states Truppa. “We are fortunate to have outstanding relationships with local food banks and pantries that supply fresh produce, dairy, meat protein and shelf-stable items each week that we can distribute directly to residents’ doors while practicing physical distance and wearing face coverings.”

Socially distanced socialization

Beyond physical health, mental health is also a key concern for the social service coordinators. “Communication strategies also had to adapt. While Social Service Coordinators had relied on spontaneous face-to-face communication with residents before the pandemic, coordinators have had to shift to telephone calls for wellness checks, and written notices like newsletters and positive messages are being delivered to residents’ doors to protect both our residents and staff,” says Truppa. “Our social service coordinators call at least once a week to check in with each person. This has helped us continue to maintain and strengthen relationships, just from a distance.”

With the pandemic now stretching out to a year, those conversations can sometimes be a challenge to find new topics to discuss. The Embrace Living team created “daily conversation themes” to help. Whether it’s Musical Monday (their favorite artist) or Turn Back Tuesday (their favorite teacher or first job), each theme further engages the resident. “The goal is to come up with questions that take them out of a place of isolation, even for a moment, and remind them that we are here walking with them through these difficult times,” says Truppa. “Some of the residents have enjoyed the daily conversation themes so much that they’ve used them when they chat with their families and have shared that the conversations were richer and sparked positive memories.”

In addition to the weekly calls, Embrace Living has remained creative to find other ways to keep residents engaged. From packets of crossword puzzles and word searches to remote bingo to coloring sheets, the social service coordinators work hard to keep spirits up. “Some of our team go door to door and leave positive affirmations for residents to find,” says Truppa. “It’s something that brings positivity and happiness in a less than happy time.”

Coordinators also got creative in planning activities that allowed asynchronous movement through the property (e.g., scavenger hunts), activities that could be structured around social distancing (e.g., bingo or music performances in outdoor spaces), and activities to add novelty and variety to the environment (e.g., door-decorating contests).

One community even went above and beyond and had a traveling arts and crafts display that showcased the work of residents. Each piece had a bio of the artist for other residents to admire.

Ensuring the wellbeing of all

Team members also leave goodies at the doors of residents from time-to-time, especially during special occasions like birthdays. Many knock to see residents’ faces when they open the door (social distanced, of course). “It’s a chance to not just ask if they are okay over the phone, but to actually see if they are okay,” explains Truppa. “The residents really appreciate that bond with our staff and the care they show towards them.”

In the end, it’s about upholding the mission and purpose of the organization, but during a new normal. “We knew it would be a difficult journey, but our team continues to do a fantastic job pivoting and getting through this,” says Truppa. “Our entire Embrace Living staff have been true heroes from day one of this pandemic. “The one thing that hasn’t changed is our commitment to the health and wellbeing of our residents. I applaud them and their relentless efforts to make sure our residents needs are being met during this crisis.

To learn more about Embrace Living Communities’ mission, please visit: https://embraceliving.org/