September 14, 2021
Maintaining engagement—for both residents and staff—became a tough job as conditions changed through the pandemic. In an interview, Paul Botana-Gumbs, CDAL, executive director of a Benchmark community in New Hampshire, talks about how the community found new sources of connection.
Q. Have you developed or used more often different ways to encourage resident engagement during the pandemic and as it wanes?
A. As the state requirements and our own Benchmark COVID-19 policy protocols changed, we had to reimagine what programming would look like for our residents. We transitioned to more small-group programming—and an unexpected benefit was the ability for us to adjust our programs specifically to the needs of a smaller group. Being an all memory care community like ours, this made it possible to better engage residents in that smaller group—which was pretty amazing.
Going to smaller groups meant we had to bring on additional programming staff. As we find ourselves doing larger group programs again with social distancing, that additional staff can assist with doing more one-to-one parallel programming with our residents, which has been beneficial to them.
Additionally, we took the opportunity during the pandemic to learn more about our residents and their interests and their goals. Benchmark launched the Something in Common program—it’s one of the first of its kind. Essentially, it gave us the ability to improve our resident move-in experience as well as capture their legacies. It combines artificial intelligence with recorded resident interviews and compiles information in a database.
It has helped us to create richer programs for our residents—to identify residents who have specific interests and to connect them with other residents with those same interests, and to better tailor what we’re doing for our residents. We’ve even created individual clubs or focus groups based on that information.
Technology itself has also played a big role in helping keep our residents engaged. We deployed tablets in each of our neighborhoods, which allowed our residents to access online programs, but also to communicate with via video chat with family members. We’re finding that even with in-person visitation largely open, many of our residents still use video chat with family members, because some family members may not be able to be here in person.
Many of these factors are standardizing as best practices moving forward. We’ve also been engaging our families through virtual family forums. Traditionally, we would have them here in the building, but families find it a lot easier to attend if we have a virtual option available to them.
Q. What’s something you learned about engagement during the pandemic that you can share?
A. One thing that we all realized, I think, is that engagement is everything. Engagement and human connection are critical to our residents’ health and well-being. The focus of any community should be ensuring that residents and their family members have the best possible experience—engagement has to take precedence.
Q. How did things change for people on staff, such as activities directors?
A. With all the changes in their responsibilities, with many forms of visitation during the pandemic, our programming staff was tasked with facilitating in-person visits, outdoor visits, window visits, Skype visits—and because of that, they became stronger and more agile. They play an even more important role now to our residents’ overall health and wellness. I think that’s something that will stay with us.
Q. How about staff and caregiver engagement?
A. During the beginning of the pandemic, we split our associates up into different groups within the community to help reduce exposure. We helped to maintain engagement in that difficult environment by assigning a director to each of those groups and hosting regular Zoom calls to the staff.
Now that normalcy is resuming, our associates are still working hard and to protect the health and safety of our residents and each other—and we continue to show support for our associates. Maybe it’s a surprise party during their shift. Or we had an ice cream truck come. We rented a dunk tank and let them dunk me and other directors, in exchange for a small charitable donation.
I think the other piece that is important is providing training focused on the well-being of our associates, giving them opportunities to have an outlet and to talk through their experiences, being able to have opportunities to share with other associates who have gone through similar experiences.