New continuing care retirement community The Spires at Berry College in Rome, GA, has been welcoming residents in stages since June. Vice President of Marketing Morgan Lamphere recently took a few minutes to speak with McKnight’s Senior Living about how COVID-19 has affected life on campus.

Q: What was it like opening the community during the pandemic?

A: Just like the rest of the world, we started to adjust our plans in the middle of March, but our contractor was able to keep us on schedule, so we were able to continue with our move-in plan. We were very pleased, because most of our folks who were planning June 1 moves had either already sold their homes or their homes were under contract, so they were absolutely, positively planning to move June 1. A pandemic was not going to stop them.

We had 55 independent living apartments open on June 1. We spaced those moves out over time. Residents of our 26 freestanding independent living cottages were able to move in starting June 15.

Another section of the community, more independent living apartments, is scheduled to open Oct. 1. And sometime after that, an assisted living/memory care neighborhood and a skilled nursing neighborhood called Magnolia Place will open, when we receive our license. 

Overall, we have about 80% of the community reserved or occupied for residents to be able to move in, and for the most part, people are able to follow through with those plans.

Q: How is COVID-19 affecting day-to-day living for residents?

A: It’s a balancing act right now, because for many of our residents, a big concern is the ability to socialize, to have visitors and to just live life the way you normally would. This virus has stopped that in a lot of ways. We’ve been learning and adapting and listening to the residents to just see how they want to proceed.

All of our residents go through twice-daily wellness checks — temperature checks and pulse oximeter checks. Also, we have a weekly COVID testing protocol where at least 10% of the campus is tested. And residents at any point in time can get a COVID test and receive those results rather quickly to know whether they are positive. Just like everywhere in the country, we have had some positive cases. All have all been asymptomatic, so just having that peace of mind to know that they can get tested anytime they want to has been very powerful for our residents.

Q: Have you noticed any difference in interest as far as people inquiring about the community, because of the pandemic?

A: We have seen the type of person inquiring shift slightly. In the past, typically, about 60% of our inquiries would come from married couples. Now, we’re seeing more single people starting to inquire. I think that comes from being in quarantine. It’s been very challenging, and that loneliness factor seems stronger. I think people who are in those situations are feeling more likely to want to make a move.

Q: Once they have moved in, are they able to socialize somewhat with other residents?

A: Yes. Fortunately, we were able to set up our communal dining with plenty of social distancing based on the number of residents that we have. We’ve been able to set up our wellness programs and our activities classes, still observing at least six feet of social distancing. And our residents are wearing masks throughout the entire campus. They understand the value of having the mask on when they’re in common areas.

Q: Did any programming or amenities have to be put on hold related to the college because of the pandemic?

A: This summer, we were limited in regard to one of the nicest amenities on Berry’s campus — more than 44 miles of biking and hiking trails — because the campus was closed to the outside world. But now those have reopened partially for The Spires residents, and we’re able to go onto the Berry College campus more freely.

The college’s theater and some of the athletic events are not welcoming fans and spectators right now, but fortunately, the campus has done a really good job of bringing in some virtual events. And in our community, The Spires, itself, we do a lot of virtual events and other entertainment and activities to, we hope, fill that gap until we’re able to get back to all of the campus amenities.

Q: Are Berry College students working on the campus of The Spires?

A: Yes. It’s part of the ethos of Berry College that about 96% of the students work at least 30 hours per week, with the idea that when they graduate, they’re essentially graduating as an entry-level professional. Many of the students work on our concierge staff, where they’re the first greeters of our residents coming into the community. We have students who work in dining and housekeeping. We have marketing interns and finance interns. The students are learning all of the different parts of senior living. That’s the intent of this community, to give the students an incredible learning opportunity, and we hope they can take that and grow into the senior living industry in lots of different ways.

It’s really been fascinating to see the relationships that they’re developing with our residents. The reason residents come here is, they really love the interaction with college students. They feel as if they gain energy from them. There’s tremendous value, all the way around.