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LEWISTON — The challenge that Terri Brockman faced almost a year ago was unlike any she had encountered in her career.

As the activities director at the Idaho State Veterans Home in Lewiston, it’s her job to encourage the facility’s 40 residents to interact with each other and visitors from the community.

But on March 13, the home banned outside visitors and made other changes such as serving meals in residents’ rooms instead of a communal dining area.

Similar rules have been imposed in most long-term care facilities in this region. The restrictions are aimed at preventing the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus, which is more deadly in elderly individuals.

But the restrictions have created another problem — increased isolation for a group that often is already prone to loneliness because of the deaths of spouses and friends or living in different towns than their children.

“It’s not home anymore,” said Mike Gabby, director of senior adult ministries at Congregational Presbyterian Church in Lewiston. “It’s a whole different world when you get into those facilities.”

At the Idaho State Veterans Home, even though residents are confined to their rooms, Brockman and others on the staff have found ways for them to socialize.

Much of the answer has involved using a handful of iPads, devices the home previously checked out to its more technologically savvy residents for solitary pursuits.

Once the employees realized the iPads were a way residents and staff could talk to and see each other from different rooms, they figured out how to reinvent activities for the format.

“We do a lot of video visits,” Brockman said. “Of course, it’s not wonderful, but it’s working.”

Instead of having Christmas carolers stroll through the halls during the holidays, a musician off-site connected to the home through Zoom, and residents joined a sing-along.

They’ve also introduced something they call “Thinktivity,” where the iPads are distributed to residents for group discussions about topics selected by staff.

“(iPads) now are crucial,” Brockman said. “That’s our link to each other and the outside world.”

Veterans home employees invented doorway games that members of the activities staff play with residents.

One is a fishing game with poles that have magnets instead of hooks at the end of the lines. Residents snag paper fish and win prizes. Another is a bean-bag toss with three boxes.

“We keep coming up with different things,” Brockman said. “When we’re excited, they’re excited.”

Like Brockman, Gabby is finding safe ways to continue outreach to seniors. Normally he would be expected to visit more than 10 seniors each week, often serving communion to church members not able to attend services.

He’d also be responsible for coordinating a monthly activity such as going out to eat or arranging for someone to give a presentation at the church’s fellowship hall about a hobby, followed by lunch.

So far he hasn’t found anything that replaces in-person visits. He’s been permitted to talk with residents in some care facilities through closed windows, but has found that it’s almost impossible for him or the person he’s visiting to hear what the other person is saying.

In one case, he even attempted to talk to a church member through a closed door.

“It was senseless,” he said. “She couldn’t hear me, and I couldn’t hear her.”

What he does instead is deliver quart-sized plastic bags with communion cups and cards with handwritten encouragement to the private homes of seniors and to care facilities.

The cups look like individual coffee creamers often found at restaurants. A tiny wafer is in the top and the juice is in the bottom.

“When we go to people’s private homes, we just knock on the door, wait for them to come, tell them we love them and hand them their little bag,” he said. “I would not want to be known as the person who spread COVID.”

The monthly activities follow a similar format. This month, Gabby and his team delivered meals that included soup and ham and cheese sandwiches.

“This has been a real challenge to figure out how you can creatively run a ministry during these times,” he said.

Brockman and Gabby aren’t the only ones concerned about the isolation of seniors during the pandemic.

Before COVID-19, Pat MacDowell, a retired public health nurse, had a circuit of six long-term care facilities in the area where she would play piano once a month, including at least one she has visited for about 25 years.

In more than one instance, members of the audience were so disoriented by dementia they would have gotten lost on the way back to their rooms if they didn’t have help from staff. Yet when MacDowell played tunes like “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” they would sing every word.

She liked to play “Name that Tune” during the concerts to make it more interactive and encourage banter with the listeners.

“I can’t sing worth a flip, but they don’t care,” she said. “We just all make music together.”

As tough as the precautions are, MacDowell believes they are the only way to protect the residents, who are in one of the groups most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“They’re very compassionate and very caring for their residents,” she said. “They’re trying to do the best they can under the circumstances we have right now.”

How much longer the isolation will last for seniors will likely depend on how quickly the vaccine is deployed.

Gabby is hearing that some facilities are gradually, cautiously reducing some restrictions when their staff members and residents have been vaccinated.

Regardless of what happens with vaccinations, residents of the Idaho State Veterans Home in Lewiston will soon be able to start seeing visitors again in a new format.

The home is constructing a visiting area that has different entrances for visitors and residents and other safety features, Brockman said.

A glass partition will separate visitors from residents so they will be able to see their guests. A sound system with amplification is being installed to help those with hearing impairments.

The area is being furnished with comfortable chairs and decorated with pictures to make it feel homey, she said.

“Everybody has had to change,” Brockman said.

This article first published in the Lewiston Tribune.

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