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With vaccination, life at Upper Valley senior facilities is looking more like normal

  • Bob Schultz quizzes residents of The Woodlands gathered for a St. Patrick’s Day social on the number of leaves on a shamrock while leading a sing-along for the occasion Wednesday, March 17, 2021. The community has weathered the coronavirus pandemic without an outbreak among residents who are now 100% vaccinated. From left are Fran Tannian, Schultz, Peggy Read, John and Anne Chamberlin, and Bob Norman. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • “If you have to sacrifice food in order to walk, I prefer food,” said Rogers Elliott while mingling among fellow residents of The Woodlands with his cane hung around his neck to free up both hands for refreshments during a St. Patrick’s Day social at the senior independent living community in Lebanon, N.H., Wednesday, March 17, 2021. It was the first social event held by residents since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic last March. “It’s something we were used to up to that point,” he said. “We’re gradually getting used to being close to each other in a more or less normal way.” (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Peggy Read, front, and Charles Russell, back, look over a figure constructed from take-out containers laid to rest in a cardboard coffin and entitled “Rest In Peace Room Service” by fellow resident of The Woodlands Dan Longnecker in Lebanon, N.H., Wednesday, March 17, 2021. Longnecker made the sculpture after the senior living community’s dining room re-opened following a long period of closure during the coronavirus pandemic with meals being delivered directly to residents in their apartments. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/20/2021 10:00:29 PM
Modified: 3/20/2021 10:00:27 PM

The St. Patrick’s Day party had a reckless abandon not seen since the pandemic began. Attendees were decked out in green and sipping glasses of beer, wine and punch, standing or sitting less than 6 feet from one another. Dozens were maskless, and most were chatting in small groups.

One wore a collegiate-looking green coat with a class year on the lapel, but these weren’t college students breaking COVID-19 protocols. They were residents of the Woodlands, an independent living community on the campus of Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital in Lebanon, gathering for their first community social since last March.

“I just feel like we’re doing something wrong,” said Bev Payne, who with her husband moved to the Woodlands from New London in December.

Once among the most at risk of serious illness should they contract COVID-19, most residents of senior living facilities in the Twin States and beyond have by now been vaccinated, including 100% of those living in the 63 apartments at the Woodlands. Walgreens provided shots to staff and residents at three clinics beginning in late January and ending earlier this month, said Cindy Jerome, the administrator for APD Lifecare, which in addition to the Woodlands includes the nearby Harvest Hill assisted living facility.

“Now that everybody’s vaccinated, we’re all feeling like we’re going to get through,” Jerome said.

Both facilities have avoided having a diagnosed COVID-19 case in a resident during the pandemic, she said, acknowledging that it may have involved a bit of luck. In addition, Jerome said APD’s affiliation with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health gave her accurate scientific information to help the facilities navigate the pandemic. Residents and staff were careful to abide by COVID-19 protocols, including mask-wearing in common areas. The dining rooms closed and food service workers delivered meals to residents’ apartments until about a month ago.

“It’s just been so quiet,” Jerome said. “People couldn’t gather.”

But now that everyone is vaccinated, “it is a lively bunch again,” she said.

Visitors who’ve been vaccinated now are welcome at the Woodlands. They still are screened for symptoms at the door and asked to wear a mask and practice social distancing. They can show Woodlands staff their vaccination record card from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and receive a laminated card identifying them as a “verified vaccinated visitor.”

Residents also can identify one “designated visitor” who is not yet vaccinated but who complies with COVID-19 safety protocols and can enter residents’ apartments without a scheduled visit while wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart. Anyone can visit outdoors, Jerome said.

There are signs of reopening at other senior living facilities around the Upper Valley, including some of those most affected by the virus. Visits resumed earlier this month at Sullivan County Health Care in Unity, which had five deaths during an outbreak this winter, and at Woodlawn Care Center, which also had four deaths, according to their Facebook pages.

At Woodlawn, visitors are still required to wear masks, practice social distancing and participate in health screening, but children under 12, who had previously been barred from visiting, can now visit if they can comply with safety precautions.

Though some people continue to die of COVID-19 in New Hampshire, the majority of such deaths are now occurring outside of long-term care facilities, Dr. Benjamin Chan, New Hampshire’s state epidemiologist, said during a Thursday news conference.

Signs of change are apparent upon entrance to the Woodlands. On a table near the door, just outside the conference room where Wednesday’s gathering was held, sat a cardboard box cut into the shape of a coffin. Inside lay a masked person made of takeout containers remaining from the days before the dining room reopened. Resident Dan Longnecker labeled the work “Room Service RIP.”

“We went through a lot of this,” Jerome said of the takeout containers. “It was a shame.”

Amy Nachmann, an 88-year-old resident who has lived at the Woodlands with her husband for more than five years, said activities such as Wednesday’s social have been “very, very missed.”

During the height of restrictions, Nachmann said she and her husband would invite a single resident to their apartment for dinner each night, leaving ample space between them. Her biggest fear during the pandemic was not of getting infected herself but of bringing the virus to the Woodlands and infecting others, she said.

It was “very scary,” she said.

Now, much of that fear has abated. She and her neighbors gather each night in the facility’s dining room. She said she’s most glad to once again see her friends’ smiles and to return to normal activities such as grocery shopping.

Wearing a straw hat decorated with a green ribbon, resident Bob Schultz, a retired philosophy professor, said he felt as though he and his fellow residents were “in a state of being released” from the “protected bubble” where they’ve been living.

Schultz, whose wife died in the fall, said he’s working to put together a conversation circle for residents aimed at building community by discussing questions such as: “What do we have in common?”

After residents spent much of the cocktail hour mingling, Schultz made his way to the piano and led the group in songs to match the occasion, including When Irish Eyes are Smiling and Danny Boy.

“You can just hear the joy,” Jerome said of the residents’ singing.

Like Schultz, Robert Sands, an 84-year-old resident who holds degrees from Dartmouth College and Tuck School of Business, said he felt fortunate the Woodlands avoided COVID-19 cases in residents. Sands, whose family owned the Norwich-based King Arthur Flour before it became employee-owned, said that the residents of the Woodlands are well-educated and adhered to the safety protocols.

“Nobody has gotten sick,” Sands said. It’s a “wonderful relief.”

While Sands said he was glad to be able to gather with fellow residents for Wednesday’s social, as well as for meals, he’s also looking forward to other reopenings. He hopes to see more of his siblings who live in nearby Norwich and Orford, return to in-person classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Dartmouth and once again enjoy shows at Lebanon’s Opera North and White River Junction’s Northern Stage.

It “just feels like it’s going to get better,” Jerome said. Things are “opening more and more … especially as the weather warms.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




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