Knowing the risk of severe illness from COVID-19 increases with age, Catholic Charities’ senior communities responded to the pandemic quickly and thoroughly, restricting gatherings and cancelling some of the in-house health services available to residents. But as Maryland rolls out a series of phased re-openings, staff are considering how to bring back some of those amenities safely.

“We are finding the balance of keeping people safe from COVID but not cutting off their other lifelines,” said Jill Kratz, manager of services for senior communities.

In coming weeks, for example, staff in nine of the 14 communities (those that are part of Congregate Housing Services) will begin delivering hot meals to residents’ homes. Normally, residents came together in the dining room to share meals, a social and communal time. When COVID-related restrictions prevented that kind of gathering, staff were able to deliver flash-frozen catered meals once a week.

Everyone understood the precautions, but “it’s not something they’ve loved!” Kratz said.

On Catholic Charities’ Jenkins Campus, a regular farmer’s market cancelled due to fears of overcrowding during the pandemic may soon restart, giving residents access to fresh produce close to home.

“It’s just one farmer. We’ve been talking about how to open that back up safely,” Kratz said, describing precautions that will include taping off 6 feet between customers.

Health care and house calls

The agency is also working to help re-connect residents with various health resources. Through a partnership with a community organization, regular blood-pressure screenings will soon start in all buildings. A local podiatrist has been willing to make some house calls. And, as telehealth opportunities increase, staff are considering how to support residents, whether through education, access to adequate technology, or an improved Wi-Fi signal.

Kratz is in the process of sorting through all the protocols necessary to keep people safe through these opportunities – wearing masks, using sign-up sheets that will manage crowds and facilitate later contact tracing if necessary, and emphasizing the role that each resident must play.

“We know that our residents ultimately have to own their responsibility in this, and what they have to do. We clean as much as we can. Each individual has to make sure they’re washing hands and wearing masks,” she said.

Each amenity added may also serve as a pilot for the next, as the team constantly tests and applies policies to keep residents and staff safe as public health advice evolves.

While service coordinators at each location have done their best to introduce socially-distant activities, connect residents, and encourage people to call each other, Kratz said senior communities have not yet found ways to bring back the residents’ most consistent request – social interaction.

“They just want to be in the community rooms, … being able to sit there whenever they want with their friends and their neighbors,” she said. “We’re trying in so many different ways to address that social isolation.”