One of the tenets of the Green House Project is meaningful life for elders. Meaningful life is focused on helping each elder be deeply known and to find, and have, a sense of purpose. Of the values we teach on our journey to become fully Green House operationally in our long term care setting, meaningful life has always seemed to me to be the most critical of the values.
The other two core values, or principles, are Real Home and Empowered Staff. While both of those are important, I see them as the building blocks to create that which is primary—helping the elders in our care to achieve a life that is truly filled with meaning.
There are many ways in which we work towards meaningful life. We take the time to get to fully know the individual, and even if they cannot speak for themselves, we ask the family for background information. We want to know likes and dislikes, history, hobbies, passions and all the rest. And we use that information to help craft experiences, start conversations, and find activities in which to help the elder engage.
COVID, our treacherous and devious enemy, tried very hard to change that, to force elders into their rooms and apartments, to keep people isolated and contact scarce. But for those of us who have devoted our careers and our lives to elder care, this mandated isolation offered us an obstacle but not a road block. Meaningful life is still of primary importance.
How do you achieve meaningful life for elders in the midst of a pandemic? You know each person well enough to tailor experiences just for them. From painting projects to making music, from exercise to hallway Bingo, we worked hard to have something for everyone. Meaningful life means connection as well. The most important connections, as we all know, are to family. While visitors were prohibited for months (and since June 21 are limited to outside visits only), using virtual visits and creating window visit opportunities were vital. Equally vital were one on one visits with the staff, working to fill the gaps and continue to help provide meaningful life.
Even more important are ways to continue to find purpose. Elders made signs to post on doors and windows to share encouragement and support for the staff. They continued to do projects as volunteers. While they couldn’t be in groups, they could individually put packages together, stuff school backpacks for children in need and write letters to newly acquired pen pals.
Experiences and purpose have also been joined by fun. When an ice cream sundae cart rolls up to your door and offers you a choice of ice cream and toppings, when a concert is held on a patio that you can see and hear from your window, when “drive in” movies take place on an outdoor screen set up for you to easily see, all of these bring the smiles that matter so much too.
While this has not been meaningful life the way we want to see it, with elders being actively engaged in daily life in their household, we know that having meaningful life must be, and remain, our top priority.
Carol Silver Elliott is President and CEO of The Jewish Home Family, which runs NJ’s Jewish Home at Rockleigh, Jewish Home Assisted Living, Jewish Home Foundation and Jewish Home at Home. She joined The Jewish Home Family in 2014. Previously, she served as President and CEO of Cedar Village Retirement Community in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is chair-elect of LeadingAge and past chair of the Association of Jewish Aging Services.