Life has changed in big ways and small over the past week for residents in senior centers around the Bay Area, but Don Levy, a resident of The Avant, isn't fretting.
A retired engineer, Levy, 84, has seen his residential community on El Camino Way in Palo Alto institute a ban on visitors — a practice that has become standard at senior communities throughout the area.
Residents who used to congregate now "self-isolate." They used to meet in the lobby to read the newspaper. Now they do so alone, scattered throughout the facility. And the communal lunch time has been staggered to ensure that diners can remain at a safe distance from each other.
Things are different now. But Levy is grateful for the precautions taken by the residential facility, even the ban on visitors.
"It makes things harder in some ways, but the people here understand why this was done," Levy said.
Since the spread of the coronavirus began to accelerate in recent weeks, the message from staff has been clear and unequivocal: We want to keep you as healthy as possible. Staff, he said, has been "exceedingly careful" in response to the virus threat as it instituted a series of changes, big and small. But residents recognize the necessity, he said, and the mood is generally good.
At Channing House, a community of 250 seniors on Webster Street in downtown Palo Alto, residents also have accepted the new conditions with good humor, said Rhonda Bekkedahl, the executive director and CEO. Since the coronavirus outbreak began, Channing House has been rapidly adjusting its policies to respond to the flurry of announcements and restrictions from public-health officials, including the "shelter at home" order that six Bay Area counties announced on Monday.
As of Tuesday morning, there haven't been any cases of COVID-19 at Channing House, Bekkedahl said. But like other residential communities, the facility has had to rethink how it's delivering services. Staff hold daily meetings to discuss the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health departments and then adjust facility operations accordingly, Bekkendahl.
These days, vendors, contractors and family members of residents aren't allowed in the building (with limited exceptions for hospice care). All gatherings have been canceled. And temperatures of all residents and staff are checked when they leave the building and come back, Bekkedahl said. Anyone showing any kind of symptoms would be asked to self-isolate in their apartments, she said.
Given the imperative of keeping residents indoors, Channing House is actively looking for opportunities for remote programs. Bekkendahl pointed to several offered by senior-service organizations Avenidas and Covia, with residents participating in groups over the phone. On Tuesday afternoon, she was preparing to hold the facility's first conference with all residents, which included a presentation and allowed participants to ask questions. Another was to follow on Wednesday, she said.
"They understand this is very serious," she said, referring to residents. "The shelter-in-place has them confused, so we're answering a lot of questions about the shelter-in-place order. Generally, they're in good humor. It's a resilient group and — so far so good."
Thomas Fiene, who heads the residents association at Channing House, said that before Monday's order, residents had rallied to help staff, which had begun to diminish as people were taking sick days or staying home to take care of their children in the aftermath of school closures. Within 12 hours, 52 residents had volunteered to assist.
Since Tuesday, however, residents have been largely confined to their rooms, aside from occasional walks and trips to get food. Now, with some at-risk residents completely isolated, neighbors have taken to Skype and FaceTime to check in on one another.
"We have a tech squad that is on call every day to help with technology," said Fiene, 85. "These guys are all frustrated retired engineers. They love to do that. We are slowly entering the electronic world to help communicate with each other."
Each floor of Channing House also now has a representative or two who make contact with residents who are living alone or who have medical conditions that make them particularly vulnerable, Fiene said. Despite the new restrictions, he said, residents have a "very high level of confidence" in the Channing House administration.
"We feel that despite stringent measures that they have necessarily employed — they are for our welfare," said Fiene, who spent 50 years on the medical faculty at Stanford University. "We are well cared for and we realize that most of us would be in the 'ultra-high-risk group,' with most of us being over 80 and the fact that most of us have some underlying condition. We appreciate the security and comfort."
At the Villa Siena Senior Living Community in Mountain View, it's been a challenge to keep seniors healthy and protected from the coronavirus while avoiding the negative mental health impacts that come from isolation, according to Executive Director Corine Bernard.
She's been in on conference calls daily with other health care providers in Santa Clara County and has been working with her staff to adopt the latest public health recommendations.
To protect seniors' physical health, the retirement community has adopted new precautions similar to Channing House's, with a ban on outsiders and temperature checks of employees at the door. Workers also undergo monitoring for signs and symptoms of COVID-19, Bernard said.
As a way to offer social interaction, staff members have started an afternoon coffee cart service that provides residents one-on-one visits. Phone calls and FaceTime chats with family members and friends are also encouraged, she said, and staff members provide tech support to those who need it.
They've also been proactively communicating with residents through regular meetings, she said.
"The best thing you can do is update and give them (the residents) the right information. The last thing you want is for them to follow some of the unverified information," she said. "They're feeling confident the actions we're taking are in their best interest. They're really not that fearful that this is going to happen to them."
While the residents of retirement communities have staff looking out for them, the shifting conditions can pose extreme challenges for seniors who are aging at home, particularly those who already have health problems and are socially isolated.
It doesn't help that senior centers and programs operated by the nonprofit Avenidas and the city of Mountain View have stopped for the time being.
The one Mountain View program still being offered is the Second Harvest Food Bank Brown Bag program. Eligible seniors can pick up food via drive-through the first four Tuesday mornings of the month from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. in the rear of the senior center parking lot, according to city spokesperson Shonda Ranson.
Jewish Family and Children's Services (JFCS), which provides services to seniors living at home, has had to cancel all of its social programs, said Sue Tenerowicz, the organization's interim marketing director. But it has also seen a big surge in requests from seniors who are not going out and need someone to come in and help them.
"Most of our clients are living alone and are requiring some assistance," Tenerowicz said. "What is hard for many of them is that they are at such a high risk that they're afraid to go out, and they don't have any independence whatsoever."
The nonprofit's caregivers are trained and briefed on precautionary measures for the coronavirus, she said. Volunteers call vulnerable residents and talk to them. And social workers help senior clients perform routine but critical tasks, like buying groceries and getting to their doctor's appointments.
Tenerowicz said the staff of her organization, like many, now works remotely, but her team is committed to continuing to provide services.
"It's a constant fire drill. But this is what we do. … This is when we pull together and we do it, because this is when our services are needed more than ever," she said.
Tenerowicz said Bay Area residents can help by donating to social-services organizations like JFCS (the nonprofit recently canceled its annual gala, its main primary fundraising event) and by checking in on their neighbors and assisting as needed.
"One of the things people can do is reach out to their neighbors. Keep your distance and do all that — but you can knock on a door and talk to a senior through the door, ask 'Are you OK?' and say 'I'll check on you tonight.' At this time, we all need to do that," Tenerowicz said.
Many neighbors are doing exactly that. Sunita de Tourreil, a downtown Palo Alto resident, reached out to several neighbors who are elderly or immunocompromised and offered to shop for them. De Tourreil has seven neighbors whom she helps out, including a group of women — three in their 70s or one in her 80s — who share an apartment.
At first, people were reluctant to take her up on her offer. Recently, they've reached out and accepted it.
"I think this is what needs to happen," said de Tourreil, who has a background in microbiology. She follows a strict regimen to make sure the groceries don't get contaminated and that she doesn't get too close to neighbors who may be vulnerable. "It's not that I'm just delivering this food. There's an intimacy and a social bond that's there."
Joy Zhang, founder of Mon Ami, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit that provides companionship to seniors by pairing them with volunteers, has recently set up a phone bank to allow anyone around the world to volunteer to make calls to socially isolated seniors. Prior to the crisis, when Mon Ami offered room visits, the nonprofit served close to 500 families, about 20% in Palo Alto. In recent weeks, it has expanded the program to make it available to anyone across the country.
Though the phone bank is brand new, 50 people have already signed up to be volunteers and Mon Ami's capacity now exceeds the demand, Zhang said.
Before, the volunteers were mostly college students. Now, there are different kinds of people, including San Francisco programmers who are working remotely and have more time to make calls.
Results can be profound. Nora Kusaka Herrero, a 26-year-old with a full-time job at a civil engineering firm, has recently switched from providing in-person companionship to volunteering by phone with Mon Ami. On Wednesday, she was scheduled to do a second call with a woman who is in her 80s.
"She was telling me that she had lived through the Great Depression and World War II," said Kusaka Herrero, who like many others is now working remotely. "This is just one more thing in the book."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and Almanac here.