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Socially Distanced But Not Disconnected: Adapting in a Pandemic

Administration

Addressing a global pandemic

Throughout 2020, Leadership at The Forest stayed on top of fluid restrictions handed down from the government at the federal, state, and local levels. Decisions made on behalf of residents and team members were guided with the assistance of Dr. Milta Little, the Medical Director, as well as CDC updates, State Department of Public Health, and LeadingAge information and guidelines. Considerations were made for all possible concerns, including issues of visitation, meals, medications, and staffing.

As soon as news of COVID-19 made its way to the United States, Forest administration established proactive infection control practices for the good of all in the community. Asking everyone on campus to exercise common sense, Leadership also impressed upon all the need to heed restrictions as they occurred and to understand that addressing safety precautions during a pandemic requires agility and realignment as information and the status of the pandemic changes.

“As we move through this pandemic, it is very easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of information, contradictions, rumors, and of course the natural propensity to fill in the blanks,” one March update from the Leadership team reads. “We feel strongly that one of our primary responsibilities is to act judiciously on behalf of our residents and fellow staff, getting the best information available and sharing that in a way that respects the rights and privacy of everyone.”

A Medical Director demonstrates proper mask wearing during a pandemic.
Forest Medical Director Dr. Milta Little demonstrates proper mask wearing techniques during a special Thanksgiving message recorded for Forest residents ahead of the holiday.

Beginning in late February and throughout 2020, Forest Leadership remained in close contact with one another via texts, phone calls, Zoom meetings, and email. As a team, the Directors addressed all questions and concerns that arose from team members, residents, and families. Leaning heavily on Dr. Little‘s direct Duke Health access to the latest guidelines and recommendations from experts in infectious diseases and virology, they were able to make exceptionally informed decisions on behalf of The Forest at Duke.

Easing the burden on team members

It was clear from the beginning that Leadership recognized and valued all team members’ contributions to easing an abruptly altered life on and off campus. Together, they worked for each employee’s continued safety, health, and wellbeing, just as they did for Forest residents.

Early on, The Forest provided two approved green face masks to all team members for their use at work. Thanks to Sandy Mouras, Director of Resident Life, and an enterprising team of volunteers, the washing machine and dryer safe masks were all carefully and thoughtfully handmade.

As a senior living and retirement community, The Forest—along with other such communities—is exempt from participation in Coronavirus Sick Leave and Extended Family Leave programs, as defined and outlined by the Department of Labor. However, as part of Leadership’s ongoing commitment to team members and in advance of these new programs, The Forest committed to several key guidelines.

As the year progressed, the organization continued to adjust schedules and functions as needed and the “new normal” continued to change. Rotating schedules became a reality for much of the workforce, with Directors arranging shifts so that everyone stayed employed and maintained their positions at regular salary for as long as possible.

“In as much as our residents come first for this organization, so do you,” Anita Holt, President and CEO of The Forest at Duke, told team members in an April memo. “You can’t have one without the other.”

General Services

Team members undergo daily screening during a pandemic.
Alia Granger, Sales Counselor, screens Hadiyah Parker, Dining Services Manager, as she makes her way into work in early June 2020. (Photo by Lauren Young)

Security

At the start of the pandemic, and for months thereafter, Forest team members took to two key entry points—the Community Center and Health & Wellness Center doors—to screen all incoming arrivals before they physically entered the building. This process involved a lengthy screening questionnaire and manual temperature taking to ensure that all arriving team members, contractors, and vendors were safe to be on campus.

During this time, Forest directors and managers were often present at the entrances to lead by example as they took temperatures and ensured the completion of screening sheets by each arriving party. Across the screening schedule, team members who stood guard at the doors did so in addition to their regular responsibilities, gracefully handling the many uncomfortable, inconvenient changes a pandemic brings.

One of the Department of General Services’ greatest challenges in 2020 was to employ an electronic screening tool to be utilized by team members and visitors.

“Having just installed new door access hardware and software, we needed to find visitor management hardware and software that would ‘talk’ to our door access software,” Nathan Summers, Director of General Services, explains.

Once the team cleared this hurdle, Charles Hudgens, Security and Transportation Manager, spent numerous hours testing, coordinating with the software developers, and training on standalone kiosks. The result? The Forest at Duke soon introduced a system that takes touch-free temperatures, records contact information, inquires about COVID-19 related symptoms, and finally opens the doors after successful screening.

A Houseman cleans the floor during a pandemic.
Gerald Johnson, Floor Tech, polishes and sanitizes the Art Studio floor in late April 2020 to help keep our beautiful community thriving. (Photo by Tom Bivens)

Housekeeping

According to Nathan, his Housekeeping Manager, Tom Bivens, was particularly proactive and accommodating during this unprecedented year of change and challenges.

“He had a generous inventory of hand sanitizer and soap, along with dispensers to deploy where needed,” Nathan says.

Together, Tom and Ruth Wilkins, Housekeeping Coordinator, managed shifting schedules for The Forest’s 36 housekeepers to ensure continued services for all residents. Their combined efforts also allowed for flexibility and safety in the rapidly changing landscape of the pandemic.

Recognizing that every resident has a comfort level regarding people in their home—especially in the climate of COVID-19—Tom and Ruth provided a schedule that accommodated resident needs as the community continued to move forward.

Additionally, the team leaders had create a new schedule involving ancillary rooms, including the gym, exercise rooms, Taproot, Living Room, and art studio. These rooms were disinfected several times each day according to the new arrangement, and in between every resident use.

COVID-19 has most certainly affected the nationwide supply chain. Though Tom has full access to direct distributers for items critical to upholding community safety, many resources were simply depleted and difficult to obtain.

Despite shortages of many high demand items, The Forest at Duke was very fortunate to obtain a pallet of hand sanitizer and antibacterial foam soap for all campus dispensers. Thanks to the community’s participation in a test program for new dispensers, this hot commodity was acquired six months before the pandemic reached Durham. Other items significant to maintaining safety among The Forest population were acquired at local big box retailers, like Sam’s Club, Wal-Mart, and Target.

Though bleach based wipes were among the first items wiped out by high demand, the Health & Wellness Center

Two team members prune trees during a pandemic.
Masked Maintenance team members Vance Wonderly and Zachary Moore prune trees in May 2020. (Photo by Steve Williams)

Maintenance

For their part, the Maintenance team secured the necessary equipment to provide negative pressure in rooms set aside for isolation respite, if needed. To eliminate “crossover” between the Independent Living and Health & Wellness residences, Zachary Moore, Maintenance Tech I, and Vance Wonderly, Maintenance Tech III, were assigned to perform work solely in the Health & Wellness Center.

All departments, General Services and otherwise, secured personal protective equipment (PPE) through multiple vendors and created new business relationships. This important box was checked to ensure that chemicals and equipment were readily available to keep team members as safe as possible as they cared for residents.

Resident Life

A team member prepares gifts during a pandemic.
During the summer, Resident Life team member Meghan Rodriguez thoughtfully fills care bags for Forest residents. (Photo by Lauren Young)

Adapting to new social norms

Before the pandemic made its way to the Triangle area of North Carolina, The Forest’s Department of Resident Life hosted literally hundreds of activities each month. Sign-ups for the numerous events and off-campus excursions were rarely required in those days of “normalcy,” leaving residents room to pop into almost any lecture, program, or film without worrying about voicing their interest ahead of time.

Now, with so many extra things to consider during the coronavirus era, sign-ups and head counts are vitally important to maintaining the day-to-day safety of residents and team members in The Forest’s congregate living setting. Even campus amenities many once took for granted—like the gym and pool—require advance registration to use.

Sandy Mouras says that she and her team have worked creatively to help the Forest community adapt to these strange and unpredictable times.

“We’ve had to really pivot to create special opportunities for social and physical wellness,” she explains. “Some people are comfortable coming together in a small, socially distanced crowd, when permitted…some are not! So creating opportunities for everyone regardless of their social and technological comforts has been a challenge, but one we’ve approached intentionally so no one feels left behind. When we’re able to get that right, it feels really good.”

Technology for pandemic living

Among many other efforts, the Resident Life team—comprised of Sandy, Sheri Sampson (Fitness Program Manager), Meghan Rodriguez (Independent Living Activities Program Manager), Kelsey Fry (Activities Coordinator), and Forest pioneer Glenn Arrington (Activities Assistant / Driver)—has taken especially seriously its responsibility to ensure that residents feel comfortable with technology, like video conferencing platform Zoom. The department purchased iPads to loan to residents and has frequently provided one-on-one tutorial sessions to those who need them.

In a time when it’s almost too easy to be isolated from family and friends, these efforts have helped the team ensure that Forest residents stay connected with their distant loved ones.

In the fall of 2020, Resident Life introduced the long awaited Viibrant Resident Portal, a password protected website designed specifically for Forest residents.

Its features are as numerous as they are impressive:

  • Instant, online registration for Forest events from anywhere
  • Ability to enter maintenance work orders and housekeeping requests
  • Easy online access to the Forest Forward (a weekly publication of campus happenings) and other important memos from administration
  • Resident and key team member directories, in addition to the pictorial directory the Residents’ Association produces each year
  • Front page highlight of new residents
  • Access to the Resident Handbook
  • Current dining menus
  • Nutritional analysis information
  • …and much more!

Additionally, as Forest dining venues cautiously reopened under strict safety guidelines, the Viibrant portal accommodated reservations in Greenwoods Fresh Cut Restaurant and The Rosewood Room, with instant confirmation.

One of the more notable changes from Resident Life’s many, many efforts during this tough season is their amplification of The Forest’s YouTube offerings. What was, in early March 2020, a largely bare channel of merely three videos and only seven subscribers, soon grew with the increasing need for digital avenues of event and activity presentation.

A resident reads before a camera during a pandemic "Resident Readers."
Forest resident Jean Vail reads a selection by O. Henry during a recorded “Resident Readers” segment. (Photo by Lauren Young)

The now robust and ever growing channel has—as of January 8, 2021—134 videos and 54 regular subscribers, with 479.6 hours of watch time and 4,900 views. The outlet is teeming with a hardworking team’s many contributions and collaborations over seven months’ time: exercise regimens and demonstrations; entertainment (sing-alongs, concerts, lectures, Resident Readers, etc.); religious services; The Forest’s own version of The Moth storytelling series; important messages from Leadership; “Music Therapy with Randi” of Magnolia Melodies; Residents’ Association proceedings; the popular “Life at The Forest” series for new residents; and more.

Unsurprisingly, the channel’s most watched videos during precautionary measures are exercise demonstrations by Sheri and Meghan. These routines offer physical wellness activities for all levels of ability and are illustrated in seated and standing form.

Making the most of community partnerships, before and during a pandemic

Established relationships with exceptional organizations also gave the Resident Life team some excellent ideas and resources for stimulating the community. Thanks to guidance from and facilitation by Chris McLeod, the innovative Director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Duke University, The Forest at Duke has begun piloting an OLLI corporate membership. The experience has been ideal for both organizations, as residents appreciate taking advantage of OLLI’s “wide range of educational programs and opportunities for volunteer service and social activities.”

The Forest enjoys a similar arrangement with the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival, allowing the Department of Resident Life to—as Sandy describes—”support them while providing residents with some world-class entertainment.” Carol Woods, a fellow continuing care retirement community situated in nearby Chapel Hill, exchanged Zoom links with The Forest to help add some diversity to Resident Life’s virtual fitness offerings.

Live performances—a long-time fan favorite for residents—were a rarity in 2020. However, Resident Life frequently arranged for live, outdoor music during times of nice, comfortable weather. This provided at least two significant benefits: residents enjoyed entertaining concerts, while musicians seized an opportunity to perform in person before others (rather than virtually).

The list goes on!

Working together for the good of the community

Sandy shares that it has been a fun challenge to work with other departments (like Housekeeping and Sales & Marketing) to help get programs off the ground. It has been vitally important to her that the residents and team members in the Health & Wellness Center always feel that they have a chance to take part in as much as is safely possible, despite the temporary, COVID-fueled separation between Independent Living and its Health Services counterpart.

Sandy recognizes and credits her team for their extraordinary efforts to keep The Forest moving, growing, and doing. “They are people—just like the rest of us—whose lives and families have been impacted by the pandemic, yet they bring creativity, care, and enthusiasm to their jobs each day,” she shares. “I am constantly inspired!

A team member smiles in the kitchen during a pandemic.
Olga Lotero Cortes, Utility Captain, works hard in the kitchen to help meet the ongoing Dining needs of Forest residents. (Photo by Shaneen Barnette)

Dining Services

As discussed in our August blog update, Dining Services has really gone above and beyond to ensure that Forest residents’ needs continue to be met during this strange time. Having set a precedent of customer satisfaction, the department isn’t slowing down!

“Like all others, the Dining department has had to pivot and adjust to the changes brought on by COVID-19,” Sharon Pitt, Chief Operating Officer and Interim Director of Dining Services, says. “In particular, this team has been faced with a task with which they had no prior experience. Thus, the process has been an exercise in ongoing improvement, and we are constantly striving for the next opportunity to do things better.”

Under Sharon’s leadership, the department has enhanced its regular delivery menu options for residents as well as improved its vegetarian selections. Approximately 500 meals are delivered across The Forest each day, topped off by Pastry Chef Megan Glover’s unique and delectable creations.

Additionally, a culinary presence in the Health & Wellness Center now allows for some food offerings to be prepared closer to the point of delivery.

Beginning Monday, January 4, 2021, Dining Services will present new menu options in Greenwoods Fresh Cut Restaurant. This venue, designed to provide residents with added flexibility in their menu choices, will now open its doors seven days a week and offer soup all day, seasonal fruit and dessert of the week, and a customizable menu with any menu ingredient.

As Sharon shares, “One of the hallmarks of any good [department] is its ability to withstand unexpected events. [We] have taken this challenge head on with courage and discipline and have adapted when and where needed and as often as necessary.”

In this photo taken in early 2020, before the pandemic became a reality for the Durham area, Sales & Marketing team members Nancy Perrin, Alia Granger, Lauren Young, and Lena’ Kithcart stand together outside The Forest at Duke’s main entrance. (Photo by Matt Martin)

Sales & Marketing

The pandemic gave The Forest at Duke a new challenge: how does our community allow interested parties to tour the campus without actually visiting?

The Sales & Marketing team rose to the occasion, offering appointments via Zoom, presentations with photos and videos to showcase our spaces, and webinars that illuminate the many opportunities to be found in redefining retirement at The Forest. Additionally, current residents hosted prospective residents in virtual coffee chats, giving them the ability to connect and communicate in a safe and effective way.

Mirroring the offerings current residents enjoy each and every day, Sales & Marketing hosted numerous online lectures, performances, and fitness opportunities to the public, all at no cost to the participants. What is usually called the Fall Learning Series became the Fall Virtual Learning Series, this time offering Zoom classes like Patio Farming Basics with Erin Hostetler of The Patio Farmer, and Healthy Living for Your Brain and Body: Tips from the Latest Research, an educational program presented by the Alzheimer’s Association of Eastern North Carolina.

Participants were also eager to attend two different yoga courses with Forest yoga instructor Cheryl Fenner Brown and further enjoyed performances by the Loeffler Trio and Scott Schillin—the latter of which featured a special video of appropriate Cole Porter period libations prepared for The Forest by beloved Durham cocktail bar, Alley Twenty Six.

In November, members of The Forest at Duke’s Future Residency Program were given exclusive access to a very special event: a virtual wine tasting hosted by the Sales & Marketing department and Mic Finger of the Triangle’s Wine Authorities. For the tasting, event participants were given three complimentary bottles of wine—each one hailing from France’s Burgundy, northeastern Spain, and Germany’s Rhein—as well as a branded corkscrew and sturdy six-compartment wine tote. The well attended event, steeped in history, featured examples of wines that are both fiercely representative of their respective regions and delicious!

Health Services

Therapists pose apart from each other because of a pandemic.
Jane Hamilton and her hardworking Legacy team of therapists are essential to the well-being of Forest residents! (Photo by Lauren Young)

Legacy Healthcare Services divides and conquers

In the middle of the work day on Thursday, March 12, 2020, Rehabilitation Director Jane Hamilton and her team of Legacy Healthcare Services therapists were called into a meeting. There they were instructed to separate therapists and close down the therapy clinic until further notice.

“Let’s just say that March Madness now has a whole new meaning,” Jane quips. “About two months into this journey, I said to myself, ‘Wow, I must have missed the class that taught you how to manage a therapy [department] during a pandemic.'”

More than nine months after that initial March meeting, despite a noticeable separation from one another and business conducted not quite as usual, the Legacy team continues to provide therapy services to Forest residents.

Jane quickly learned that each day of the pandemic brought different challenges, and that while planning itself was difficult, she must remain flexible and creative.

“I am constantly problem solving to figure out how to deliver services and provide programming while adhering to guidelines issued to remain healthy and safe,” she explains.

Of course, one of the most difficult aspects of managing the Rehabilitation department has been the team’s inability to treat residents in the therapy gym. There, the team houses all of its equipment, including a balance machine, parallel bars, various treatment tables, and ultrasound gel warmer. The therapists come together briefly every day to touch base, but spend most of their time making solo visits to resident homes and treating residents in the Health & Wellness Center.

“There is no way that would be possible unless we had the amazing Legacy therapy team that is here,” Jane beams. “This team is dependable, loyal, and totally dedicated to helping maintain and improve the quality of life for the residents here at The Forest.”

Jane also largely credits her team’s success to the incredible support provided to them by Legacy Healthcare Services. The organization maintains a close, collaborative partnership with The Forest at Duke and has done so since 2003.

“I would like to express gratitude to the residents and their families for allowing us into your homes and hearts, and for entrusting Legacy with your therapy needs,” Jane shares. “We will continue to do all we can for as long as we can, and together we can continue to do awesome things.”

In this February 2020 photo, Social Work Services team members Joan Nelson, Jessica Hackett, and Teresa Schlauch stand together outside the Clinic entrance. (Photo by Lauren Young)

Social Work Services bridges the gap during the pandemic

The Forest’s social work team has not been immune to the challenges of the pandemic and its consequential restrictions. Under normal circumstances, the social workers divide the campus alphabetically by last name, with Teresa Schlauch responsible for residents with last names beginning with A-K, and Joan Nelson providing support for those with last names beginning with L-Z.

When safety restrictions began in March 2020, the team immediately divided the campus differently, with one social worker in Independent Living and the other in Health & Wellness. To compound the team’s hurdles, Teresa began her employment at The Forest a mere month before precautionary measures fell into place. Having had only that short time to receive training under Joan, Manager of Social Work Services, Teresa was essentially asked to “sink or swim” as she continued her role without close guidance.

“Teresa [proved] herself worthy of that challenge,” Joan shares. “She did an amazing job of learning on the fly.”

Additionally, the third member of the social work team—Jessica Hackett, Resident Navigator—took on numerous tasks that were new to her. Through her efforts, internal moves at The Forest continued smoothly and successfully.

During the strange and uncharted reality of COVID-19, no Forest resident went without a social worker. The team remained available and ready to help and advocate for each person who needed assistance.

In the third week of December 2020, after nine months of separation, the social workers resumed the freedom to go back to their original alphabetical assignment of campus residents. Joan and Teresa will continue to minimize their time going back and forth between areas on campus, and Teresa will now enjoy the process of getting to know her residents in Independent Living.

Joan’s favorite aspect of the entire experience was learning how to move residents into and out of the Health & Wellness Center by way of an “assembly line.” Under these circumstances, each member of her team was assigned a task; upon completion of said responsibility, they then guided each resident to the next team member.

“[This afforded] us the ability to [move residents] and their belongings from Independent Living to Health & Wellness without every stepping foot in the area we were restricted from,” Joan says. “We never know what the future might hold, so it’s nice to know that we are still able to meet all of the residents’ needs, regardless of where they live on campus.”

Moving forward in a pandemic

Now that 2020 is behind us and the vast expanse of 2021 lies before us with endless possibilities, there are still a lot of “what ifs” dwelling in our minds. Notably, as the state of North Carolina moves ahead with the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, The Forest continually receives information from its regulatory agencies and pharmaceutical partners regarding the availability and timing of immunizations for all of our residents and team members.

As more concrete facts are known, Leadership will share that news with the Forest community as quickly as possible. Additionally, the Sales & Marketing team will ensure that the Coronavirus Information and Resources page on ForestDuke.org is regularly updated.

Since March of last year, in lieu of spending time with our loved ones in person, Foresters often saw them over FaceTime sessions and Zoom meetups. Sheltering in our homes became the norm. Enduring postponed events and gatherings was a necessary inconvenience. Wearing masks to protect one another grew to be our second nature.

Sharing these habits in common, we pushed through 2020 with a spirit of camaraderie, waiting in solidarity for good news to come. Now, with images and videos shared from the first round of vaccinations at UNC and Duke, we collectively feel a sense of hope for the new year.

Lauren Young, Marketing Specialist

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