With most of the residents and staff at three Montgomery and Bucks County senior living communities having been vaccinated and COVID-19 rates in the community decreasing, pandemic-related restrictions that halted visitors and group activities are guardedly being decreased. 

"I think the toughest thing over the past year has been when we've had to pull back and how that affects our residents as far as socialization and family visits," said Dan McKee, president and CEO of Grace Inspired Ministries, which has about 700 residents living on its Lutheran Community at Telford and The Community at Rockhill campuses. 

Ed Brubaker, president and CEO of Living Branches, which has about 1,100 residents on its The Willows, Souderton Mennonite Homes and Dock Woods campuses, remembers being in a meeting with a newly formed task force for the coronavirus response when Gov. Tom Wolf announced the state-wide shutdowns last March. At the time, it was expected to last for about two weeks.

"I don't think any of us had any idea the magnitude of what would happen over the next year, and frankly, to be honest, it's probably good we didn't," Brubaker said. "It was depressing enough going through it, let alone if you had known that it would be a year plus."

The pandemic has had a big impact on both residents and staff, he said, not all of it negative. 

"The flip side is I think we've also realized how resilient we as human beings are and you work at it and you support each other," Brubaker said, "but it has been a huge challenge."

At Peter Becker Community, which has about 500 residents, small cluster groups were formed in the residential section, said Suzanne Owens, president and CEO.

"We have groups of people that aren't going off campus, that aren't interacting with everybody, and they're really safe because they're not exposed to Covid," she said. "We were able to find ways that they could continue to have a happy social life during this even though there's so many restrictions. They have lived in these little bubbles we've helped them to create and I think that that's been very positive. I think that's really helped them."

The clusters were only in the residential section, she said.

"When you look at skilled nursing and personal care, there's so many regulations that establish what you can do and what you can't do that there are times that it has been really, really difficult in terms of isolation, but I think you'll find that most facilities have done everything they can to try to counteract that," Owens said.

That has included visits behind Plexiglas shields, she said.

"Our residents did spend Thanksgiving and Christmas alone and that's really tough to be in skilled nursing or personal care during that time, but now we're about to reopen again," Owens said.

On March 1, visitors began again being allowed on the Peter Becker campus and dining rooms reopened for residents, she said.

Reopening plans are also being worked on or have begun happening at the Living Branches and Grace Inspired Ministries campuses, Brubaker and McKee said.

Positive changes that happened during the year included the use of telehealth, McKee said.

Communication with residents and their families about the pandemic has included videos, in-house television broadcasts and information posted on websites.

"There's been a lot of change in how we communicate and how we can get that information out relatively quickly," McKee said. 

"Our approach was to tell the story and the facts so that people didn't have to wonder what was going on," Brubaker said.

When the outbreaks first started, there were a lot of phone calls that had to be made to the families of residents, he said.

"A lot of those phone calls were not easy for staff to make because in some cases, it might be to say that their loved one had Covid, or in some cases maybe they passed away," Brubaker said, "but we felt it was just very important to be transparent and be truthful and forthright and give people the information we knew so they could feel like they could trust what was going on here even if it was not always news that we wanted to be able to deliver or that people felt good about because there was some sad news. It wasn't always good news, obviously, that we needed to communicate."

There has been a lot of communication and support between the senior living communities in the area, which now regularly take part in Zoom meetings together, McKee said.

"We'd always feel free to reach out to each other with a question or two, but we thought it was important to set up kind of regular meetings, share best practices," he said.

People are anxious to return to life the way it was before the pandemic and changes will continue to be made to make that possible, Owens said. 

"People live in this kind of community because they enjoy being around other people," she said. 

"We'll need more space, we'll need different types of ventilation and that kind of thing," Owens said, "but I would say that people will go back to as much socialization as is appropriate as soon as they can. People are missing it very badly." 

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