Blanche Varmecky

Arbutus resident Blanche Varmecky enjoys a conversation with granddaughter Stacy Roberts via FaceTime in this March 2020 photo.

Measures to reduce the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic are affecting everyone, but particularly significantly those who at the highest risk of serious illness.

Under new guidance issued March 13 by the Centers for Disease Control, nursing homes across the country have locked out most visitors and volunteers, eliminated group activities, closed communal dining rooms and begun screening health care staff every day.

“That’s tough on people,” spokesman Kurt Roberts said from Arbutus Park Retirement Community, 207 Ottawa St. in Richland.

Staff at Arbutus Park Manor and other homes across the region are finding creative alternatives to engage residents and keep them active while expanding technology to help residents remain connected with the families.

New smartphones and tablets are helping residents at many homes fill the void created by the ban on in-person visits.

At Arbutus, the tablets were donated by Adam and Emily Pudliner, Roberts said. Emily Pudliner’s grandfather was a resident at Arbutus.

“She remembered all those visits and how important that was, so she wanted to help,” Roberts said.

The tablets allow friends or family to schedule virtual visits using video chat applications such as Skype or FaceTime.

Representatives at Laurel View Village, 2000 Cambridge Drive, Davidsville, and Cambria Care Center, 429 Manor Drive, Ebensburg, confirm they have also introduced or expanded video chat opportunities.

“It’s been exciting. We’ve had an uncontrolled amount of tears, but also some smiles when they see their friends and family,” Keana Bertocci-Myers, activities director, said from Cambria Care Center.

‘Letters to home’

The home is also posting “letters to home” on its Facebook page. The posts include photos of residents holding posters with messages and videos of residents telling family and friends how they are doing.

“It’s great, because it goes across the entire United States,” Bertocci-Myers said. “They really like the letters to home.”

In addition to its expanding virtual visitation, Laurel View has a more traditional social engagement platform through its senior pen pal connection with area students, spokeswoman Angela Rizzo said.

Within each nursing home’s community, teams have adapted some favorite activities to incorporate social-distancing recommendations.

With one innovation, residents join together in an activity while sitting in chairs at or near the doors to their rooms, at least 6 feet apart.

Residents at Cambria Care Center and Arbutus have played hallway bingo, with numbers relayed through the halls by activities staff. Cambria Care Center had hallway crafts, distributing materials and providing guidance to make Easter decorations for the home.

‘All hands on deck’

Another day, Roberts said, activities aides led residents in hallway sit-and-stretch exercise activities at their chairs.

“Dietary went around with sundaes, taking them room to room,” he continued. “It’s really been all hands on deck and everybody coming together.”

Cambria Care Center is using hotel-style room service door hangers where residents can request snacks, crossword puzzles or other materials for independent activities.

“Residents are adjusting to the new programming very well,” Bertocci-Myers said. “Several are very excited about it.”

All of the homes report residents are receiving an outpouring of support through cards and letters from the community, particularly children.

The materials are held for a few days before being distributed to seniors to reduce the chance of live virus in the materials.

Randy Griffith is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5057. Follow him on Twitter @PhotoGriffer57.