Seniors with swag

Local Retirement communities step up to battle COVID-19
Fh Luau In August 2020
Photo provided by Ferris Hills

As winter fades into spring, the world approaches a sobering milestone: two full years of living amid a pandemic with no end in sight. Across the nation, senior living communities—having been hit particularly hard by COVID-19—continue to rally as they are pushed to find new and innovative ways to preserve a sense of normalcy while also keeping their residents safe. Due to restrictions on funding, stringent laws, and the ever-evolving needs of the senior citizen population, this has been no easy feat.

Locally, Rochester-area senior living communities have been hard at work developing creative ways for their residents to thrive despite the myriad challenges they continue to face.

Executive director Aimee Ward—who oversees both Ferris Hills at West Lake (an independent living facility) and Clark Meadows (assisted living)—has spent the last twenty-four months alongside her dedicated team planning and implementing initiatives to improve the day-to-day lives of the many residents who are housed on the community’s fifty-seven-acre shared campus.

Ward says,“The people who live here are exceptional people who enjoy art, travel, music, and fine food. There’s a great cross-section of experience, education, and backgrounds.”

Both Ferris Hills and Clark Meadows—UR Medicine Thompson Health affiliates—offer a plethora of activities that have taken shape since the pandemic began, including lessons in American Sign Language (ASL), painting, physical fitness, tai chi, and mah-jong. Residents can also eat in on-site restaurants and safely participate in large-scale events including a classic car show, annual summer concerts, and an in-house version of the Walk to End Alzheimer’s. “Our goal is to offer everything older adults are looking for: comfort, security, and the opportunity to meet exceptional people in a beautiful setting where life can be truly enjoyed,” says Ward. 

“There is a true sense of family here, and it was only enhanced by the uncertainty and anxiety produced by COVID-19.”

Jewish Senior Life—a local Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC) dedicated to serving people of all faiths and backgrounds—has kept residents busy amid the pandemic by featuring traveling art therapy carts, snack carts, and annual themed parades (Chanukah, Rosh Hashanah, classic cars). Residents also enjoy a variety of programs that are tailored to meet their social, cultural, and recreational needs.

At the Highlands at Pittsford, residents live out their pandemic days serving on committees (such as the Friendship Committee, the Go-Green Committee, and the Community Outreach Committee) or pursuing advanced learning opportunities via one of the many on-site educational lecture series. Seniors also have access to several amenities including a resident library, a new health and wellness center, and an in-house community garden.

Ann Julien, who has served as the director of sales and marketing for The Highlands at Pittsford for the past fifteen years, says: “[Even during a pandemic], you can be as busy as you want to be. Our residents are doing whatever they can to keep people safe—they buck up and do what needs to be done—but they are still having a good time.”

In addition to implementing diverse and engaging activities throughout the COVID-19 era, local senior living communities are improving the overall well-being of their residents by harnessing the connective power of new technology. Since receiving additional iPads from Thompson Health, staff at Ferris Hills and Clark Meadows have been able to offer residents training on how to use social tools, including FaceTime and Skype, to keep in touch with family and friends. And they aren’t the only ones.

At the Jewish Home of Rochester (a Jewish Senior Life affiliate), residents began using LinkedSenior—an iPad application that provides programming, videos, educational opportunities, and other entertainment for seniors—alongside TekHub, a unique technology support center that continues to benefit the residential community.

For seniors at The Highlands at Pittsford, a university-based retirement community, COVID-era technology has taken a creative turn. On this campus—comprising thirty-six patio homes, 135 independent living apartments, and sixty-two assisted-living apartments—a select group of tech- savvy residents known as “portal friends” are charged with building technical competence within the community. Another new initiative—HAP Hero— allows residents to create video testimonies recognizing staff members who have gone above and beyond throughout the pandemic.

While accessible technology is certainly useful, thriving during a pandemic is about more than simply staying busy and connected. It is also about giving back to the local community.

“This is a generation that truly understands the ‘we’re all in this together’ mentality,” says Ward, referring to the Ferris Hills and Clark Meadows residents’ steadfast dedication to helping others.

“We reached out to the community to find local schoolchildren—who were also having to stay home—and we (connected them with senior citizens) who were interested in being pen pals. This has led to some beautiful friendships!” Ward says.

Ferris Hills and Clark Meadows administrators have also worked to maintain strong philanthropic connections within the Canandaigua community throughout the pandemic. These ongoing partnerships are with Finger Lakes Community College, the Eastman School of Music, WXXI, the Fiddlers of the Genesee, and ChamberFest Canandaigua as well as other local organizations.

Not to be outdone, both The Highlands at Pittsford and Jewish Senior Life have also set their sights on collaborating with community neighbors.

Julien attributes the Highlands at Pittsford community’s strong interest in philanthropy to the fact that many of its residents have readily supported charitable causes throughout their lives.

“The question became, how could we still maintain this [charitable spirit] while facing a global pandemic?” she says

The answer: by restructuring existing events in compliance with COVID-related restrictions.

Prepandemic, the Highlands at Pittsford residents prepared meals at both Hope Lodge Hospitality House and the Ronald McDonald House. Once on-site cooking was no longer an option, residents instead held a bake sale that raised more than $4,000 for the nonprofits.

The Highlands at Pittsford seniors also held a drive-by food and backpack drive, raising money for several local organizations including the Pittsford Food Cupboard, Saint’s Place (which serves local refugees), and the Center for Youth. More than $1,500 was raised.

Michele Schirano, senior vice president/ administrator at the Jewish Home of Rochester where she has worked for nearly twenty-nine years, credits the ongoing efforts of Jewish Senior Life staff with keeping residents safe while also providing opportunities for community involvement. “Someone living in an assisted-living or nursing home can feel great comfort that their medical and nutritional needs are met as well as their social needs,” says Schirano.

Recent outreach efforts have included a partnership with the Hillel Community Day School, where students connect with residents through an intergenerational program as well as with Project SEARCH—a collaboration with Heritage Christian Services—that offers young adults with disabilities an internship opportunity and work experience.

The Jewish Home of Rochester also serves as a teaching site for local colleges, providing educational opportunities for students attending Monroe Community College, Nazareth College, State University of New York (SUNY) at Brockport, and St. John Fisher College.

So, how is it that local senior living communities are managing to make such progress amid these difficult times?

Resilience and preparation.

“Overall, morale has remained incredibly high. I attribute this to the staff ’s ingenuity and compassion as well as to the residents’ collective belief that ‘this too shall pass.’ Going through all of this together (residents and staff) has made all of us appreciate one another even more,” says Ward.

“Throughout the pandemic, we have followed the trends and been proactive in ordering critical supplies before global shortages have occurred. It has always been our priority to do the right thing to protect our residents, from ordering gowns and masks and prepping for vaccine storage to putting new safety measures into place,” says Schirano.

Nursing homes rise to the COVID-19 challenge

Maplewood Yahtzee

Photo provided by Maplewood Nursing Home

During the height of the COVID-19 crisis, residents at nursing homes were left despondent as safety protocols kept visitors away. Some families and friends decided that “window visits” were the way to go. Standing outside, waving, and holding signs was a better option than being totally separated from their loved ones. The Maplewood nursing home in Webster knew there had to be a better solution. Morale was low among residents, so the staff got creative. They designed Clearview Visiting. This innovative visiting system had a heated and air-conditioned vestibule with plenty of comfortable seating. An amplification system made it easy to communicate, and a plexiglass panel provided protection against virus transmission. Family members and residents could sing songs or simply enjoy conversations. Clearview Visiting changed the game for family, residents, and staff during a very difficult time by raising spirits and protecting the most vulnerable in the community.


“The challenges will always be there,” she adds.“It’s how you deal with them that makes the difference