The arrival of COVID-19 and the accompanying safety precautions that have followed has had a major effect on senior living communities and their residents. Person-to-person interactions are an important part of keeping residents not just happy — but also healthy. How do you keep those interactions going during a time when the in-person visits and off-site trips most residents are so used to aren’t feasible, at least for now in many locations?

Balancing health, safety and happiness can be a tight-rope walk, but you can take proactive steps to help your residents — and their families — stay connected during a challenging time in our industry. Here are three tips to help you meet the challenge. Some of them may be familiar to you, and some may be new.

Tip 1: Leverage new technology

One of the small blessings during the pandemic is that computer technology has advanced to a point that we can see, hear and interact with loved ones when they’re not physically present. Zoom and FaceTime both have become an important part of how we interact with residents at my community, The Kenwood by Senior Star in Cincinnati, and how they stay in touch with their families.

A few things we’re doing that you might consider:

  • Help residents use Zoom and FaceTime for visits with family members. Aim for at least one virtual visit a week for residents.
  • Rethink classes and lectures to be a mix of socially distanced in-person events and digital engagements. We host daily activities that range from history lectures to seated yoga. Now our residents can attend these digitally from their apartments and even be joined by family members.
  • Communicate with families. We have a bi-weekly Zoom update call that allows us to speak directly to residents and their families about the latest safety protocols and changes and answer any questions they may have.  Having these calls digitally has been great because it allows us to speak with family members who live out of town or out of state.

And don’t forget to help cover the technology gap. Some residents take to their iPads like ducks to water. Others have a more difficult time. Consider designating an employee as a “digital concierge” who can visit residents in their apartments and help facilitate virtual meetings with loved ones.

Tip 2: Leverage old technology

Sure, video chat services are all the rage, but sometimes looking to technology of the past can be equally effective at lifting residents’ spirits. For instance, we have launched an audio cassette program that allows families to borrow a recorder for a few days, record messages, songs or even baby laughs from home, then drop it off for the resident. Not only is it easier for residents — they just have to push play! — but it also offers a fun learning opportunity for kids in the family.

Looking to even older technology, the pencil or pen, also can be valuable. In the early days of lockdown in Ohio, we created the “Send a Smile” campaign, which encouraged local students and families to write paper letters to residents detailing stories from their lives. We’ve received hundreds of letters from across the country, and it’s been a big hit with our community. Even better, writing thank-you letters makes it an interactive activity for residents.

Tip 3: Practice safe socialization

Because there really is no substitute for in-person visits, depending on where you are in the country, it may be possible to use some simple safety protocols that offer residents valuable socialization time. Just don’t forget the masks!

At The Kenwood, we’ve created a mobile shopping and weekly bar cart that staff members bring to our residents’ apartments. Both have become fan favorites. Similarly, we hosted a “grab-and-go” breakfast event last month for professionals in the area.

We’re also slowly finding ways to re-introduce in-person family visits. Holding these socially distanced meetings outdoors are a good way to do this, and we’ve created a tall acrylic sheet (Plexiglas) “welcome wall” that allows for personal visits in our foyers.

No matter what steps you take to keep residents healthy and engaged during the pandemic, the most important thing is to do it with a smile. 2020 has been a tough year for everyone, but a little old-fashioned human kindness goes a long way in brightening up someone’s day.