“I think it's important to [remember] that, yes … no one could have been prepared for this,” said Wendy Beckles, CEO of Shepherd Village, in a June interview with CTV News. Looking back at the onset of the 2020 pandemic, she says, “it wasn’t like anything we've seen or experienced before.”
In every way, coronavirus took the world by surprise, though some were better prepared to meet the challenge than most. Many retirement homes were, in fact, well-prepared, contrary to the prevalent narrative. In communities across Canada, staff and administration quickly responded to the threat of the virus, thanks to a range of existing services, protocols, and professional insight. “At the beginning of March, [we] began to understand the magnitude of what was coming,” says Teresa Merryfield of the Lodge at Valley Ridge -Verve, in Calgary. "Our administration team quickly put strong measures in place to ensure resident and staff health and safety.”
This story was repeated in many other retirement homes, often ahead of government mandates. Shepherd Village in Scarborough, Ontario, locked down within two days of the World Health Organization’s pandemic declaration. They immediately hired additional staff to help with sanitizing. In nearby Sts. Peters and Paul Residence, ceiling-to-floor plastic was installed overnight. Some retirement homes were screening as far back as January or sourcing extra personal protective equipment (PPE) long before shortages hit.
The result of measures like these is that communities excelled at creating uniquely secure places. Families rightly praise those who diligently kept their loved ones safe. Mary Griffiths, whose dad is at Caroline Place in Hamilton said, “I can sleep at night because [staff at Caroline Place] had a quick and thorough plan when COVID-19 started ... They have continued to adapt and always in the best interest of their residents. I’m extremely relieved ... They deserve a reward for their professionalism and care.”
No reward was forthcoming, of course. These retirement homes are simply doing what they’ve always done: keeping seniors in their care safe and secure. The story continues. As of November 9, 2020, the Retirement Homes Regulatory Authority of Ontario reports that 525 Ontario retirement homes have had no outbreak, more than two thirds of communities in the province. On the west coast, operators like PARC Retirement Living, Bria Communities, and other private retirement home companies remain COVD-free. Other companies that can also say this include V!VA Retirement Communities, Delmanor, and more.
When things go right, when responses have been successful, it doesn’t make the news. It seems no one’s interested in challenges well-managed but perhaps we should be. More often than not, that’s the story that retirement communities can indeed tell. Providing care, from counseling to cleaning, is what they are patently designed to do, and communities across Canada have answered this challenge precisely because they’re positioned and prone to do so.
In many untold instances, retirement homes responded quicker and more diligently than requirements. Communities like Shepherd Village were first to secure an exclusive supply of PPE for staff. They required visitors to provide a signed declaration of testing negative for COVID-19 with a copy of the result. At Schlegel Villages and Delmanor communities, twice daily temperature checks for residents and staff became part of life early in the crisis, and remain so. With measures like those, many retirement homes spent the summer of 2020 virus-free, with seniors enjoying the company of good friends and compassionate staff.
They learn more all the time how to keep people safe and also enhance their lives. “Our continuing focus as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic is working together calmly, confidently and decisively to maintain community health and wellness,” said Mark Andrew, Senior Vice President at Tapestry in a letter earlier this year. “I’m grateful to our employees who have continued to support our residents and each other during a period of constant change and unique circumstances.” Tapestry is just one company that has done an excellent job of not only keeping residents safe but also happy.
Communities across the country have been first to really understand that the crisis hasn’t been only about safety, but also personal wellness. While social distancing might flatten the curve, it also isolates individuals from families and friends, and disrupts established daily and weekly routines.
Once distancing programs were in place, then, it was time to think about residents’ and families’ personal needs. In May, PARC Retirement Living installed meetup centres to facilitate family visits: free-standing, pod-like structures adjacent to PARC’s residences throughout Greater Vancouver. There, families are visiting while protected from contact by plexiglass. As one family member said, “We can visit with Papa and focus on visiting with him rather than technology.”
Read more about family meetup centres offered by PARC Retirement Living.
Others have followed suit. In June, Scarborough Retirement Centre added their own meeting structures, where families can visit privately, remove their masks and even have a meal together. As with PARC, booths are partitioned by glass, and every visit is followed by a complete top-to-bottom sanitization. V!VA Retirement Communities set up parking lot tents, where meetings can be scheduled in an app created just for this purpose.
Companies have been concerned about more than merely adapting existing services to a changed world. At Delmanor communities across the Greater Toronto Area, sure, they’ve ensured that their farm-to-table dining has been preserved uninterrupted. As Chef Divakar Raju says, in the ongoing fight against COVID-19, “proper nutrition remains one of our best allies.” However, staff don’t stop with merely serving food. “Our kitchen team [keeps] community spirits high by sketching cartoons and writing inspirational quotes on in-suite delivered meal containers.” That’s just one example of how they keep going an extra step to show care.
The result of retirement homes’ responsive efforts and lessons learned mean they are better prepared than ever to improve seniors’ lives. Life is not waiting, and communities are steadfast in welcoming newcomers. In fact, they have been throughout the crisis.
These stories weren’t sensational, but some were sensationally good. In April, Janet Chartrand had the unusual problem of trying to move her parents from Missouri City, Texas, in the middle of an international lockdown. The move had the air of a cold war thriller, with Chartrand meeting her parents at a closed, nearly vacant border, carrying a raft of paperwork. Some of this was provided by helpful staff of The Redwoods, the Ottawa retirement home her parents were moving to.
Now moved in comfortably, the story has gone even better for her parents. “They monitor things daily, and they’re very careful,” says her father, Dr. Donald Smith. The words of the lifelong medical practitioner ought to carry weight. At The Redwoods, he’s “very impressed with how well-indoctrinated everyone is in what to do … Any fear anyone our age has about moving into a place like this is not founded. We’re both in our 90’s. This is the right place for us.” Read Dr. Smith's full story.
He’s just one of many pleased with their decision to move into and stay in a retirement community that is their home. During the initial uncertainty of the pandemic, Gilda Whyne, of Revera Bradgate Arms followed her son’s urging and moved in with her daughter for a few weeks. But she already had a home she loved, she says, and “I soon thought it was time to move back.” In the community, friends are all around her. Despite some restrictions to keep her and them safe, “People love it here. They appreciate it. We’re all quite happy here.”
Susan Simmons is “new at Magnolia Gardens,” a Bria community in Langley, but she’s nearly choked with emotion when talking about life there. “This is a warm, beautiful place to live,” she says. “There’s such a wonderful sense of cooperation.” Like all of us, she’s been socially restricted this year, but she’s found comfort in the company of staff, the warmth of the community, and its pleasant surroundings. She says she’s “happy and content” and feels it’s “peaceful and safe here.”
Watch Susan's tesimonial below.
When communities provide safety and comfort and give peace of mind to those in their care, that’s never the kind of thing that makes headlines. For seniors on the receiving end, though, there might be nothing more significant.
Joyce Mendis, a senior at Granville Gardens -Verve, in Vancouver, speaks for many when she says, “We are so thankful for the wonderful job you have done to keep us all safe. We realize it has not been easy for you to achieve this.” She’s simply thankful for the way her community “implemented the changes required to fight the virus.”
Barbara’s father has lived at Harmony Hill Retirement Community in Oshawa for more than two years. During early days of the quarantine, even while she was unable to see her dad, the community “created a real sense of safety and security,” she says. Staff have been “kind, caring and friendly” and everything is “extremely clean.” Now, she says, there’s nothing more she “could want [for her] 91 year old father, especially during the challenge of these days.”
"These days" may go on for some time to come, for all we know. Communities like those above will strive to steadfastly deliver security, safety and professionalism. They’ll respond to ongoing changes, doing what they’ve always done, providing compassionate care, and enhancing the wellness for the seniors under their watch.
"RHRA COVID-19 Dashboard." rhra.ca/en/covid19dashboard/
"Fully Operational and Still COVID-free." PARC Retirement Living. parcliving.ca/parc-living-responds-to-covid-19/. Retrieved Nov 10, 2020.
"COVID-19 Response." Bria Communities. briacommunities.ca/about-bria/covid-19-response/. Retrieved Nov 10, 2020.
Editor's note: We do not claim that all retirement homes on Comfort Life have remained safe from coronavirus, nor can we claim that all communities named in the story above will remain virus-free. However, as noted above, many private retirement homes have not had any incidence of COVID-19, as of November 1.