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Getting Creative About Connecting With Older Loved Ones, Nursing Homes Residents

Vanessa Woods teaches an outdoor, socially distant class with older adults.
Vanessa Woods
Vanessa Woods leads an outdoor, socially distanced class for City Seniors Inc. in early fall 2020.

Mid-November is arguably a bit early to start putting up holiday decorations. But it’s not at all too soon to make thoughtful plans to safely connect with relatives, particularly those who are more isolated this year, and spread some joy.

“Start having those conversations now,” Marjorie Moore, executive director of the nonprofit organization VOYCE, told St. Louis on the Air. And for those with loved ones living in long-term care facilities, that means navigating communication with an already stressed group of workers.

Is watching a favorite holiday movie together from afar possible? Perhaps a Zoom call into a family’s living room as the tree lights are turned on for the first time? What needs to happen to make those moments of joy feasible and as wonderful as can be?

Marjorie Moore is executive director of VOYCE, which educates and empowers individuals and their families for quality living across the continuum of long-term care.
Jeannie Liautaud Photography
Marjorie Moore is executive director of VOYCE, which educates and empowers individuals and their families for quality living across the continuum of long-term care.

“A lot of times it’s about finding the person who connects most with the resident,” Moore suggested.

On Tuesday’s talk show, she joined host Sarah Fenske to share additional ideas for engaging older adults and particularly nursing home residents in creative ways as the coronavirus pandemic drags on.

Also participating in the discussion was Vanessa Woods, owner of Vitality Ballet. Through the company’s Vitality In Motion division, Woods and her partners work specifically with long-term care facilities to make dance-based exercise accessible to older adults — whether that’s from a chair, wheelchair or partially standing.

At a time when so many facilities are struggling with staffing and keeping people safe from COVID-19, Woods has found that not all nursing homes are well equipped to move their typical in-person programming and events to a virtual format. But when they give it a go, time and again, it’s worth it, said Woods, who has adapted the guest room at her home into a Zoom-style studio.

“It was really important to us that we were continuing our mission and not just abandoning thousands of seniors around the region,” she said, adding that “we are all versatile, even in our 90s.”

Among the suggestions Moore and Woods offered during the show for connecting with relatives and friends in long-term care facilities and ensuring they are stimulated and engaged were the following tips:

Begin with an understanding that staff members are likely overwhelmed these days. “They are spread so thin right now,” Woods emphasized.

Be persistent but also strategic. “It’s really great to have one person [within a family] being the point person to make those phone calls,” Moore said. “Because one of the things we saw, and it was really bad early in the pandemic, was 12 different family members from one family trying to reach a resident. And that happening on a scale of 100 residents with a staff already stretched thin just made it impossible to return phone calls in a timely manner.”

Make sure your idea truly meets that particular older adult’s needs and desires. “Think about what is best for the person that you love,” Moore explained, pointing out that some activities that might seem like great ideas could wind up being confusing or frustrating, depending on a person’s situation.

Take a video of holiday lights around town, describing what you see.

Send handwritten cards. No, it’s not a newfangled idea, but it is a tried-and-true one that can still pack a punch when it comes to combating loneliness.

Do you have a creative idea or tip of your own to share with other listeners looking to brighten up this challenging holiday season for older, isolated relatives and friends? Tweet us (@STLonAir), send an email to talk@stlpublicradio.org or share your thoughts via our St. Louis on the AirFacebook group.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.