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COVID-19 Pandemic Showed Strength of Ohio Valley’s Elder Care Network

Photo by Nora Edinger Paula Calvert, director of Family Service–Upper Ohio Valley, is proud that network was able to supply seniors in Ohio and Marshall County with more than 111,000 hot and nutritious meals in 2020. COVID raged, she said, but the Meals on Wheels network and other services that help seniors live independently held together.

WHEELING — Nursing home residency or even a bit of age on oneself or a loved one felt like a death sentence at points of 2020. COVID was bad. But, given some time to reflect on an exceedingly tough year, two area experts said the local elder care network not only held, it proved stronger than they realized.

That matters in a big way in the Ohio Valley.

In Wheeling alone, U.S. Census Bureau figures show 21% of residents (about 5,400 people) are age 65 or older. Some of these seniors live with family or are in assisted living or long-term care. Nearly 40% (about 2,100 people) live alone. COVID deaths came — Ohio County has lost just under 90 residents to the pandemic to date. But, statistically, the vast majority of the senior demographic survived.

Here is the backstory as to one facet of why full-on disaster didn’t strike — as shared by Paula Calvert, director of Family Service-Upper Ohio Valley, and Donald R. Kirsch, administrator of Good Shepherd Nursing Home.

FULL BELLIES, STRONG BODIES

Meals on Wheels — one of the senior assists provided through Family Service — kept rolling throughout the pandemic, Calvert said. The center delivered some 111,000 meals to clients in Ohio and Marshall counties in 2020.

“That’s a lot of people that were fed and fed well,” Calvert noted, adding that nutritional variety is medically critical for seniors who are living independently but might not be able to cook real meals for themselves. “Cooking a cabbage roll for one is not possible.”

During the height of the pandemic, boxes of shelf-stable foods were also regularly delivered by staffers, all of whom were deemed essential workers.

Filled with items such as instant oatmeal, coffee, nut milk, peanut butter and easy-open tuna packets, the boxes provided what Calvert called “food security” in a time when grocery shopping carried significant risk and there was no assurance shelves would be stocked even if seniors did brave the trip.

Center workers – wearing personal protective gear and following COVID protocol – also continued going out to homes. Sometimes, it was just to deliver the meals or boxes – which also provided the opportunity to regularly check on clients’ wellness. Other times it was to help with housekeeping or hygiene or to provide transportation to medical appointments.

“The biggest take away that I’ve noticed was the importance of our services,” Calvert said of being able to help clients effectively shelter in place. “We were essential. We were there through all of it.”

And, they weren’t alone. Calvert said COVID moved Family Service into a closer relationship with other area nonprofits “filled with amazing people.”

“If someone needed something, we always found a way to provide that,” she said of tapping into that network in new and more frequent ways. “It might not have been full and complete, but it met the need of the person with dignity.

“I know I have a stronger network of nonprofits that I can go to,” Calvert said of that pandemic aha moment. “It has been good. Well, it hasn’t been good, but we’re learning different things.”

POISED FOR ACTION

Kirsch, Good Shepherd administrator for 40 years, had a similar experience to Calvert’s, even though all of his clients were in skilled care.

The largest non-profit nursing home in the state, Good Shepherd maintained 90% capacity throughout the pandemic. That meant he and staffers were guarding not only their own health, but that of nearly 200 residents. The experience was “gut wrenching,” but Kirsch believes the nursing home is a better facility as a result.

“We are much more cognizant of infection control policies and procedures,” he said of an early-pandemic learning curve. The nursing home put that knowledge to work so quickly, they were never cited for infection-related deficiencies during five surprise inspections in 2020, he said.

But, the real payoff was in November, when an outbreak sickened 20 residents. He said staffers were on it immediately, quickly moving the ill to an area where they could be cared for in isolation. Five ultimately died – a fact that still makes Kirsch cry — but the virus spread stopped cold.

Regarding other pandemic lessons that stand out to him, Kirsch focused on the importance of staff – from those directly serving residents to those purchasing supplies.

On the latter end, he said the facility had a stash of protective gear that included face shields before COVID struck. Additionally, a close and long relationship with suppliers meant the gear kept coming as the stash was exhausted – which helped keep down disease.

He was also delighted to discover even more resilience among residents and their families than he had anticipated. When the facility went into a form of lockdown in March 2020, staff introduced electronic tablets to residents and FaceTiming began immediately.

It wasn’t great, he said, but it helped everybody cope.

“They (residents) were pretty much asked to remain in their rooms for eight or nine months,” he said of measures that lasted until vaccinations began in late December.

(More than 90% of residents and 76% of staff are now Moderna vaccinated.)

“I’m a younger man than most of the residents here, but I’m not sure I could have endured that kind of isolation.”

They did endure. Elements of the separation ended in February – an event celebrated not only among staff, residents and family but in the New York Times, which chronicled that first day of resumed community.

Going forward, Kirsch is thrilled his part of the Ohio Valley senior safety net held and is now, ironically, stronger. He’s watching occupancy head back up toward 94% and said he realizes more than ever what that kind of number really means.

“It has everything to do with our staff and how well they care for our patients and the reputation they’ve built for this facility,” Kirsch said. “Long-term care is based on trust.”

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