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Southern Oregon senior centers turn to tech

Kaitlin Peitz’s title at Skylark Assisted Living and Memory Care is administrator, an all-encompassing leadership role that carries with it much responsibility.

But lately, thanks to the spread of COVID-19, Peitz could just as well be called Skylark’s information technology specialist. Not sure how to use Zoom on your iPad? Just ask Peitz, or one of her team members.

Isn’t there a way to use Facebook for video calls? Why, yes, Peitz would say, and here’s how.

“Oh, yeah, I have instructions for everything,” she said. “So you can send it out, have the families work on it, and if they can’t figure it out, then we have a conference call on how to do it.”

The heightened reliance on technology and the role it plays in day-to-day life in the wake of the novel coronavirus has touched virtually every segment of the population in some way, but few communities have felt the sting of social distancing like the residents of senior living centers such as Skylark. Because those 65 and older are particularly at-risk, senior centers have adopted strict rules to limit who can come and go.

Skylark, like many assisted-living facilities, has restricted access to essential visitors only.

“And essential visitors,” Peitz said, “include home health and hospice nurses, family — (only) if their loved one is in the process of passing away — and then personal care givers who will assist in the care of our residents.”

The same is true at Maple Ridge Senior Living in Ashland, which like Skylark has a giant red bar front and center on the homepage of its website warning potential visitors of the new restrictions. The safety measures are taken very seriously at both facilities, and for good reason. Skylark has 95 residents between the ages of 67 and 98, and about 80 employees. Maple Ridge has 32 assisted-living residents and 38 employees, according to Amira Fahou, education and programs leader for Compass Senior Living, the management company that oversees Maple Ridge.

To help residents cope with being cut off from family and friends, staffers at both Skylark and Maple Ridge have been busy setting up the only sort of connections considered completely safe given their clients’ demographic: digital.

“It definitely has been (a challenge), but we’ve been doing a lot of FaceTime or setting up Zoom meetings, using technology to our advantage,” Peitz said. “I’ve been setting up personalized videos on our Facebook page for family members. We’re trying to bring that technology piece into the community for the residents.”

Videos and photos posted on Skylark’s Facebook page each day keep family and friends abreast of what the residents are up to. One video features three women and a man, each facing the camera, sending out well wishes to loved ones.

Peitz and her staff have also been busy training residents how to use their phones and laptops to meet loved ones via screens while face-to-face visits are off limits. Besides the general frustration of being stuck inside, the push to take advantage of digital offerings has so far been a big hit.

“They think it’s great,” Peitz said. “It’s something that they’re not used to doing. We want to do everything that we can to make sure that our families and our residents still feel connected. It’s such hard times for everybody, trying to get through this, not being able to see our own family members even if they’re 20 minutes down the road.

“So we’re trying to think of different ideas. We’re bringing letters back. When is the last time you wrote a letter, right? Having family members receive letters from their loved ones — what an amazing thing to do.

“It’s not (hard to do). And what I’ve been telling families is that if you don’t know how to use Zoom, on Facebook Messenger they have a video option there. If you have an iPhone, then you have the ability to FaceTime. There are so many different avenues you can go depending on how technology savvy our families are.”

The same is true at Maple Ridge, where like Skylark even employees aren’t allowed through the front door without first having their temperature taken. Besides hooking up residents with video calls, employees, in an effort to ward off cabin fever, are also organizing more robust game-time options such as cornhole and bingo.

On Thursday, residents enjoyed an ice cream social. Pictures on the Maple Ridge Facebook page show residents smiling while holding bowls of ice cream under a post that noted: “with social distancing, of course!”

Another post from Wednesday showed two women on opposite sides of a hall toasting each other under the message: “Wine down Wednesday isn’t canceled! Cheers neighbor! #socialdistancing.”

The interactive digital options aren’t limited to video calls. Both centers have taken advantage of virtual tours available for free online — anything from museums to national parks. Broadway shows, symphonies and operas are also popular, said Fahoum, adding that residents are doing things to feel connected to the community.

“At Maple Ridge,” she added, “the residents are helping with an emergency supply drive for the seniors that maybe are still in their own homes and unwilling to get out and go to the grocery store. (The staff) just delivered some supplies to some seniors a few days ago, and the residents helped package them up.”

Peitz said since it’s considered unsafe for the residents to take part in outside activities, they’ve had to get creative to come up with ways to bring the outside in. Like Maple Ridge, Skylark has set up some virtual tours in its theater room, one of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, another of an aquarium in Washington state.

But physical activity is important, too, notes Peitz, and figuring out ways to make sure residents are getting enough of that while also adhering to the CDC’s guidelines is almost a game in itself.

“Lots of arts and crafts, lots of indoor gardening, little pots and flowers,” she said. “Lots of hands-on activities to keep their brains going and keep that depression out. It’s everybody, right?

“And then you take away that family aspect, you take away that socializing with the outside world aspect and it’s super important for us to continuously engage our residents, even if it’s one-on-one conversation. We’re still doing dining in our dining room, really encouraging conversation down there. Even if it’s started by the team, getting the residents talking to each other.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Andy Atkinson / Ashland TidingsResidents at Skylark Assisted Living and Memory Care in Ashland are using digital tools to stay connected to family and friends.