Pavlo Kononenko doesn’t think his company’s approach to battling the effects of COVID-19 is unique, but what he described in a recent blog certainly is different from media reports that portray senior living residents as lonely and isolated from fellow residents, and family members as pleading to see them after months of separation.
Yes, things are different than they used to be at Landmark Senior Living’s five assisted living and memory care communities — four in Massachusetts and one in New Mexico. Staff members are wearing personal protective equipment and carrying out rigorous infection control regimens, for instance.
Except for a few days in March when “everybody stopped everything,” however, the company has maintained socially distanced dining in community dining rooms, with residents traveling the hallways to and from meals and interacting with one another, Kononenko, Landmark’s president, told me. Group activities have continued as well, albeit with limits on the number of residents who can participate on any given day due to social distancing.
And although the company facilitated video chats between residents and family members, they “simply did not compare to personal visits,” he said. Since about mid to late April, weather permitting, residents can visit with their loved ones while socially distancing outside in special areas. (“We had residents tear up the first time they saw their families again,” Kononenko said.)
“We were concerned that if we confined everybody to their rooms, they would be safe from COVID, but that won’t save them from dying because they will decline, mentally and physically,” Kononenko said. “So we had to strike this very delicate balance of making sure that we keep residents safe from COVID but also preserve as many quality-of-life activities as possible.”
Landmark had been proactive in stopping nonessential visits and tours before any guidance was issued advising those practices, he said. Actions affected staffing, too.
“In one of the communities, we did have an aide who worked at our facility as well as at one of the nursing homes that had a pretty bad outbreak,” Kononenko said. “So they had to tell the staff right away, ‘Pick a place where you work, but you can’t work at multiple places anymore.’ ”
Members of the company, which has a history of more than 20 years of operational experience, kept abreast of the latest science and news reports as well as local, state and national orders and guidance, he said.
“We understood pretty early on that this is not something that will be done in a week or two, like a flu outbreak,” Kononenko said. “If it were something like that, then you could lock down, weather the storm for two weeks and then everybody’s happy. We saw that this will go on for months.”
So Landmark worked closely with local and state health departments and regulators to try to develop an approach to COVID-19 that maintained resident quality of life as much as possible, he said.
“We wrote to them and said, ‘Are you really comfortable with these guidelines? People will start dying if they’re confined to 300 square feet of space and they’re living their last year or two of their lives and they aren’t allowed to see family or anything like that,’ ” he said. Landmark soon received approval for its approach as long as people practiced social distancing and proper hand hygiene and took other precautions.
The company, Kononenko said, continues to monitor the situation to ensure that residents remain safe. That includes tightening restrictions as necessary if COVID-19 appears — and it has appeared in three of the Massachusetts communities. (One community has had between two and 10 cases, according to state officials, who report ranges, not exact numbers, for staff and residents. Another community has had 10 to 30 cases, and a third has had more than 30 cases.) Staff cases in one community, he said, were isolated quickly, and spread to residents was prevented due to actions such as mask-wearing.
Kononenko said he expects the use of PPE and disinfectants to be the new normal for many months to come but said Landmark will continue to try to balance safety and quality of life for residents.
As he wrote in his blog, “The best we can do is take it one day at a time, continuing to weigh risks, maintaining strict adherence to safety protocols and patiently wait for the arrival of the vaccine.”
And although he doesn’t think Landmark is unique in its actions, “I think what’s essentially different about us is that we realized that COVID is something that will take place for a very long time, so we started putting these procedures in place pretty early on,” Kononenko said. “So while you might hear that some other places are ‘loosening up’ and maybe going too far with that, we established pretty strict rules about how to give people quality of life pretty early on.”