Bringing people together safely, clearly
While talking with family and friends on the phone or video chatting on platforms like Zoom or FaceTime are better than nothing, people all across the world are missing the opportunity to engage with their fellow human beings in person.
This is especially true of those living in retirement communities where they are largely isolated during the pandemic.
In June, the Georgia-based company Thrive Senior Living, which manages 17 senior living communities, was finally able to provide that opportunity to its residents at Tribute at Black Hill in Germantown, Maryland.
The company installed clear plastic panels to allow residents and their family members to see and speak with one another while still adhering to social distancing guidelines.
“We’ve learned that there is no substitute for being a few feet apart from someone you love,” said Jeramy Ragsdale, CEO and founder of Thrive.
An innovative solution
Like other senior living communities across the country, Tribute at Black Hill closed to the public in mid-March. By the end of the month, however, Ragsdale had received multiple emails from the residents’ families about wanting to see their loved ones.
“Each day that went by, there was another birthday without seeing family — or an anniversary that a couple couldn’t spend together,” Ragsdale said. “I didn’t sleep well.”
Ragsdale quickly got to work on creating an innovative plan with his leadership team to address the problem: clear connection panels. Measuring eight feet by 10 feet, the transparent Lexan polycarbonate sheets are the same material race car windshields are made of.
Ragsdale did much of the work himself. “I simply went to Home Depot, loaded up a truck of what I thought we might need, and headed to my dad’s woodworking shop for some help,” Ragsdale said.
Three days later, Ragsdale, his family and the Thrive team had built 10 panels. He then embarked on a road trip, starting in Georgia, with Thrive President Les Stretch and CFO Sebby Kannukkaden.
They traveled more than 1,500 miles to five states in the Southeast to install the clear connection panels. In the process, they distributed more than 4 million face masks to their staff and residents.
Enabling emotional connections
Ragsdale and the clear connection panels were not able to make it to Maryland, however, until the beginning of June due to the state’s stay-at-home mandate. On June 4, the first Maryland residents were able to engage with each other and family members face-to-face.
Carole Spruill, who has lived at Tribute at Black Hill since its grand opening March 2, was able to visit with her daughter, Yasmian Lyew, for the first time in months. “It’s great because I can see her fully,” Spruill said. “I like it because it’s not on the phone, and I can experience an emotional connection.”
Lyew was also grateful for the connection to her mother due to the clear connection panel. “It brings me peace to see her smile and how well she is doing,” she said.
In addition to being able to see loved ones in person, the clear connection panels also accommodate the residents who are hard of hearing. Mae Bauerband, who moved into the community during the pandemic, had difficulty communicating with her daughter, Mae Forsythe, over the phone.
“Being able to lay eyes on her made me feel better,” Forsythe said.
And the panel reunion had the same effect on Bauerband. She has mainly kept to herself since moving in, but “I understand from the team that after our visit she was more outgoing and stayed outside for lunch,” Forsythe said. “That is a win!”
Bauerband isn’t the only one who has been positively impacted by the panel implementation, according to Torshie Brice, the social network director at Tribute at Black Hill. “Our residents are so excited,” she said. “It’s such a heartwarming experience.”
“It’s so popular we need a second one,” said Tribute at Black Hill President Jodie Edwards-Taylor. The next weekend, Ragsdale delivered another panel to enable additional visitors to participate.
A lesson from lockdown
To Ragsdale, the lockdowns due to the pandemic have shed a light on an already prolific problem in retirement communities. “The broader battle being fought by Thrive and others isn’t COVID-19; it’s loneliness and isolation,” he said.
Social isolation is associated with higher mortality in older adults, according to a 2013 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It increases the risk of developing physical health issues, including cardiovascular disease and cognitive deterioration, and decreases the ability to maintain strong mental health.
“It’s our hope that everyone will remember this feeling — this longing for community — and carry it forward to help eliminate isolation and loneliness for our older adults whenever and wherever possible,” Ragsdale said.
Instead of focusing on all of the destruction coronavirus has caused, Ragsdale chooses to see the good. “This has been a great reminder of how precious special moments are,” he said.