By Morris S. Funk, President and Chief Executive Officer of Beth Sholom

The pandemic has made this past year unlike any other at Beth Sholom. In late February, it seemed like we were facing a typical long-term care viral threat, but I could not shake the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that this was going to be so much bigger. Like other communal living organizations, we have occasionally been required to lock down visitation to prevent a community-wide spread of the flu or norovirus. In the early days of the pandemic, there was so little information available, making it difficult to anticipate and prepare for the reality of what was coming. We were one of the first senior living communities in our area to lock down, and like so many others in our industry, we faced extraordinary daily challenges and heartbreaking losses. Here is our story.

Our frontline staff put themselves and their families at risk every day simply by coming to work. Once the March lockdown was put into place, many of our staff found it difficult to meet the challenges of working and managing their families. After the schools closed, staff had to scramble to find ways to address the needs of their children while continuing to work. Daily, our employees faced the fear of bringing the virus – which was still not fully understood – home to their family.

Our employees faced rapid and drastic changes to their customary work environment. Beginning in March with the stay-at-home order, our administrative employees were required to work from home.  Equipping their homes with new technology took considerable effort, expense and time to ramp up. Our Nursing, Culinary, Housekeeping, Life Enrichment/Activities and Rehabilitation staff were essential and rose to the task of maintaining their high standards in the most difficult circumstances. However, despite our staff’s herculean efforts to adapt to this new normal, the unavoidable resulting loss in overall productivity due to the pandemic was staggering.

Infection-control protocols were continually changing and evolving. Because the federal and local health officials were literally winging it early on, we received new guidance and required protocols daily. We would scramble to comply and the next day be asked to go in another direction because best practices at the time warranted the change. It was quite a challenge to try to educate a campus of workers in important new requirements when they could not assemble in a group for formal instruction.

At a time when the demand for transparency had never been higher, new communication methods for staff and family had to be adapted to this new way of pandemic life. We held online educational sessions for staff, sent work-related emails to staff’s personal accounts, added an information phone line for family members, posted almost daily updates to our website, increased health-related signage, and like every other industry, held all staff meetings via conference and video calling.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) became a whole other challenge. I could never have imagined a world where PPE was in limited supply. Many hours were spent each day researching where PPE could be obtained. Because of limited availability, we necessarily paid ridiculously high prices in order to keep the community stocked with even the most common items such as toilet paper, paper towels, hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes. When we could not locate necessary supplies, we improvised. We learned to make our own hand sanitizer; we found cleaners and ponchos at the dollar stores; and we used garbage bags when our supply of gowns dwindled to zero. PPE was so expensive that I thought it would break us financially, but it was all the other costs that followed, like overtime, hero pay and lost revenue, that would have an even greater impact on our community’s financial health.

We faced daily staffing issues due to illness, quarantine, lack of childcare or just plain fear of coming to work with coronavirus in the community. Like all senior care communities in our area, we had to turn to agency staffing for temporary nursing personnel. Due to the shortage of agency staffing coupled with the perceived risk of caring for a COVID patient, we were required to pay premium rates which far exceeded the pre-pandemic rates for these same workers. Despite the dedication of these temporary workers, the constantly rotating agency staff was difficult on our residents and our own staff.

The pandemic has led to deficits that greatly impacted our financial stability. Our occupancy rates fell drastically. The public lost confidence in our industry as a result of the nationwide outbreaks in, and the constant bombardment of negative press about, senior living facilities. The reduction in our occupancy and increased expense for staffing and PPE was unexpected and therefore not addressed in our short-term and long-term financial planning. Though it has been almost a year, the decline in occupancy and financial pressure has not abated.

One of the most devastating consequences of the pandemic was that our residents could not visit with their families, interact with each another or engage in the many group activities offered in our community. Quite simply, our residents could no longer enjoy the active, engaging lifestyle that brought them to Beth Sholom. Their families could not hug them or comfort them through the dark times. One of our residents, a Holocaust survivor, described the isolation by saying, “Once again, I found myself incarcerated through no fault of my own.” The makeshift barriers and outdoor visitation, though the best options at the time, were no substitute for the hug or kiss of a loved one or friends.

With many employees working from home, the cancellation of many daily resident activities and restricted access to vendors and visitors, the energy that made our community so vibrant and lively, was greatly diminished. The few of us on the administrative team who did come to work daily could not safely interact with our frontline staff – we had to support them from afar. Most of the time, it felt as though we were on an island. It was beyond eerie.

But from darkness, comes light.

The world was certainly right to celebrate our healthcare workers. The team at Beth Sholom put forth a herculean effort to care for our residents while finding innovative ways to keep them safely engaged and connected. Our workers stepped up to ensure that residents never had to worry about supplies, food or medication. Each day, our employees put themselves and their families at risk, endured difficult conditions and worked exhaustive hours – yet their commitment to Beth Sholom and its residents never wavered.

Our residents’ families, Board of Trustees and local community provided tremendous support for us during these trying times. They treated staff to frequent catered lunches and arranged for food truck visits and special treats. They raised money to purchase iPads for our residents’ virtual visits and to buy gifts for staff. They organized parades, drive-bys and other special salutes to show support and appreciation for all the hard work and sacrifice of staff during this trying time. The overwhelming support reminds us that, especially in times of crisis, we can count on their help and generosity.

There is a new focus on senior living caregivers, which I am hopeful will help bring about systemic changes in the long-term care industry. We must find the resources needed to enhance their wages, education, and work experiences. Our employees are truly heroes. They worked tirelessly and selflessly to make sure that the residents at Beth Sholom had the best possible care during this awful pandemic. The long-term care workforce has long been underrated and unappreciated by many. Hopefully, a perception shift will result from this tragic experience and lead to renewed appreciation for our long-term care employees.

Though the pandemic has been a true test for our culture, it has left us with many reasons to be optimistic about our future as we begin to imagine a post-COVID world. By implementing new technologies and enhanced infection-control protocols that made our community safer, embracing transparency and aligning communication strategies and discovering innovative ways to safely engage our residents, the pandemic has led to the strengthening of our operations and has created new opportunities. I believe the changes will further ensure the health, safety and well-being of our residents and staff.

Our primary focus is now on administering vaccines to residents and staff, giving us hope that we are turning the corner on this devastating pandemic. We have the strongest desire to get back to some sense of normalcy. I cannot imagine that we will ever return to our pre-pandemic ways … and I believe that is a good thing. The challenges we faced and the lessons we learned have provided us, and the senior living industry in general, with a unique opportunity to reinvent ourselves and be stronger for the future.