Keeping seniors safe during the pandemic

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We are all aware of the terrible toll the coronavirus has taken on our community’s most vulnerable. Seniors continue to be at risk of COVID-19 outbreaks in nursing homes across the region.

In response to the pandemic, senior facility administrators banned all visitors from entering, while also mandating that their residents stay confined to their rooms. Families and friends have been cut off, and seniors are experiencing a greater sense of isolation than ever.

Michele Richards

As a care manager and direct care companion for the aging, I am often the only familiar face my clients see each day. I always try to make sure families are connecting via phone calls and FaceTime, but this is no substitute for tight hugs or meaningful family gatherings.

With the coronavirus crisis expected to last for months, many families are reconsidering whether a nursing home or senior living community is the best option for elderly parents right now.

If a senior does not need medical care, and one of their adult children can keep their home at a low risk of contamination, a “staycation” might be the best option for everyone for the duration of this crisis. It can give peace of mind to the family and improve the overall happiness and quality of life for a senior.

If your loved one needs assistance while you are at work, private helpers can be hired directly, or sourced through a care-management company. For those with homes that do not offer an appropriate living space for a senior, alternatives exist.

My company recently opened Ultimate Grace House, a two-person, handicapped-accessible premium living space in Penfield. This facility is complete with a walk-in shower and other amenities that support safety, enrichment and autotomy for seniors. My original plan was to use this property as a small, boutique hospice facility, but the coronavirus caused me to pivot for now into providing an emergency alternative to nursing homes and senior living facilities.

Ultimate Grace House is intended as a place of refuge for seniors and the people who love and support them most. Because it is a small, private facility, families are empowered to make their own decisions in collaboration with a care-management expert. They can tailor-make a care plan for daily living and control visitor access to the apartment.

Changing the way we care for our elders

It is my hope that this crisis and the attention it has focused on the plight of our seniors will lead to long-lasting changes in the way we think about the elderly. I would like to see more families get involved in designing a customized care plan for their loved ones that provides for as much flexibility and autonomy as possible.

Senior living communities can do their part by providing living options that are closer to what people are used to. Living in community has a lot of advantages—enabling seniors to share costs while enjoying increased services and activities—but why can’t these facilities be integrated with the rest of society so everyone can get to know people of all ages? I have a deep appreciation for my elderly clients; they have enriched my life greatly and have a lot to offer the rest of us. 

Finally, I want to say a word about my professional caregivers. They provide loving companionship while helping manage medications and health care appointments, planning and preparing meals, doing the laundry and making sure the environment is free of contamination. Unfortunately, our society does not value their work as much as it should.

One way to start is by providing them a living wage. In 2006, when I began my career in health care, the average caregiver in the U.S. made $9.75 an hour. Last year, they earned $10.25 an hour. Not much improvement in 13 years! It is likely that the current shortage of home health aides coupled with the booming senior population will inevitably lead to a rising pay scale. I hope people will realize that elder care is a calling, not just another job.

Ultimately, it is our seniors who suffer when the work of their companions is undervalued. Last year, the turnover rate for elder care aides was 82 percent. That means multiple caregivers are being placed with a senior, causing much discomfort, confusion and frustration. It is time to treat the contributions of these men and women with the respect it deserves and provide professional development opportunities that expand their skills and knowledge.

Life as we once knew it has been forever changed by COVID-19. Communal living in large facilities is not the most ideal place for seniors right now. But what if the world could come out of this crisis better than it was before? My hope is that the current isolation we are all experiencing will highlight the need to build more places where the entire family can enjoy a relaxed life together, worry-free living spaces where every generation can meet and make their own unique contribution to the greater good.

Michele Richards is the founder of Ultimate Grace LLC, an elderly life management and companion care boutique service in Rochester. All coronavirus articles are collected here.

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