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Sunday Seniors: Nursing homes get creative to keep residents connected to family and friends

  • Activity director Jennifer Grimes-White helps resident Fred Desimone FaceTime with his wife and family last week at Cedar Hill Continuing Care Community in Windsor. (Photograph courtesy of Jennifer Grimes-White ) Jennifer Grimes-White photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/21/2020 8:18:47 PM
Modified: 3/21/2020 8:18:45 PM

When news came through about coronavirus restrictions at nursing and assisted living facilities, the Cedar Hill Continuing Care Community faced its own looming crisis: bingo.

“We can’t do the big group activities anymore,” said Jennifer Grimes-White, activities director at the Windsor-based senior living facility, noting the directive to keep people at least 6 feet apart. She said a core group of about eight people play bingo six days a week.

“There is no stopping bingo,” she said. “That would be a catastrophe.”

Cedar Hill is one of many senior living providers throughout the Upper Valley that have had to find new ways to continue much-loved programs and embrace new forms of technology to keep residents connected to their loved ones.

“I think that’s really been our biggest concern is how to keep up people’s morale and spirits in the face of this necessary change,” said Dr. Daniel Stadler, the section chief of geriatrics at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center who also serves as the medical director at Cedar Hill, Hanover Terrace and Genesis Health Care’s Lebanon Center and Elm Wood Center in Claremont.

At Cedar Hill, which operates a skilled nursing facility, a memory care unit and assisted living facility, it’s taken some creativity to keep the fun activities going. Jigsaw puzzles are a big draw, and residents often gather around a table to work together. Now, staffers have fashioned individual puzzle tables out of cardboard, pool noodles and duct tape that can sit over residents’ laps, Grimes-White said.

As for bingo, a new table configuration abides by the new social distancing guidelines, and reusable bingo cards have been swapped out for disposable ones. Workers are even washing bingo chips after each use in the same solution they use to wash dishes.

“This is our thing with our group and that was the biggest hurdle we had to face,” Grimes-White said. “We figured it out.”

It’s not just in-house activities that required a little extra effort. One big adjustment has been helping residents stay in touch with family and friends, even when nursing homes across the Twin States have barred in-person visits, as the COVID-19 pandemic hits older patients especially hard.

“While we want to make sure the virus does not race through this community too quickly, there are health risks if seniors are socially isolated,” Stadler said. “Seeing family members and friends is important.”

Nowadays, that means a little tech goes a long way.

While Hanover Terrace had already set up video chatting to help some residents stay in touch with their families, use has skyrocketed over the last two weeks, said Martha Ilsley, administrator at the facility.

By noon last Thursday, activities director Kerri-Ann Coutu had helped facilitate two dozen calls between residents and their loved ones. Calls usually last 15-20 minutes, and staff from all over Hanover Terrace have helped.

“Everyone is pitching in and helping so we can assure that our residents and their families have that contact,” Ilsley said, noting that some residents call their family members every day while for others it’s less frequently. “Whatever the family member and the resident want, we’ve been doing.”

Because group activities are limited, staff have also spent more one-on-one time with residents, whether that be going for a walk, reading or playing a card game.

“Whatever we can think of that meets the resident’s needs,” Ilsley said. “Everyone is an individual and they like to do different things, and it’s nice that we’re able to do those special one-on-one activities with residents.”

At Cedar Hill, staff have been using tablets that are part of a telemedicine project, said Patricia Horn, community executive director. They’ve also been doing more phone calls.

“I think it’s super-important for us to help the residents and the families to not feel isolated from each other,” Horn said. “It’s important for people’s mental health. It’s important for them to still feel connected to the outside world.”

Cedar Hill often invites residents’ family members in for holiday open houses and warmer-weather barbecues, which are a favorite of staff and visitors alike.

“It’s been really hard kind of emotionally to know that the safest move for our residents is to restrict those visits,” Horn said. “We need to do that right now.”

Kendal at Hanover residents have been using the video chatting app Zoom so they can still eat dinner with each other, spokesman Jeff Roosevelt said. Staff also have been uploading exercise classes to the facility’s internal TV channel and recording musical performances by residents to share with others.

“Residents are sharing ideas and certainly we are trying to put out daily updates that include ways that can improve communication with residents and their families,” Roosevelt said. “Socialization is very important. That’s something we try to encourage. Trying to help residents connect in that way is very important to us.”

To that point, the pandemic has brought medical providers and staff, residents and their loved ones even closer together.

“I’m hoping that the good side of this is when we meet again in person we’ll have all these new tools so we have new ways for people to stay connected,” said Horn, of Cedar Hill. “That’s what keeps us going.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at or 603-727-3221.

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