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From balconies and online, seniors find a way to connect despite pandemic (copy)

With the tune of “You Are My Sunshine” drifting over the parking lot of The Waters of Excelsior senior living community, under a bright blue sky, it was easy to forget the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic for a moment.

Instead of worrying about toilet paper or face masks, the 45 people participating in the singalong belted out the cheerful lyrics together − 27 residents from their balconies in the senior home, and 18 family members and staff carefully spaced apart in the parking lot below.

With people over 60 at heightened risk of death from coronavirus, senior living communities began laying out strict visitor policies and cleaning schedules days or weeks before the rest of the country caught onto social distancing. That’s led to major innovations in the ways staff keep their residents entertained and connected with their neighbors and community.

The Waters has locations in Excelsior, Eden Prairie and Plymouth, among other locations, and its residents across the board have gamely gone along with the changes necessary to get through this crisis safely, said Lisa Bien-Sinz, vice president of marketing for The Waters.

“Is it frustrating? Yes. Is it a big change? Absolutely. But I see our seniors becoming inventive together,” she said. “Our residents have been amazing at embracing this.”

Mona Gustafson Affinito, 90, is a resident of The Waters who relished the opportunity to connect during the singalong on March 26.

“It just feels so good to sing,” she said. “There’s nothing like a good high A.”

Mike Hart attended the singalong with two of his children to catch a glimpse of his mother, Joanne Hart, who lives at The Waters of Excelsior. He hadn’t seen her since before schools closed on March 17, and while the family wasn’t allowed inside the building, they caught a glimpse of her on a balcony from their spot in the parking lot.

“It’s good to see her,” Hart said.

While her regularly-scheduled poetry class has been transferred to a virtual format, Affinito had to cancel plans to see several shows with her son at the Guthrie, which was disappointing, but she understands why.

“I feel bad about all the good stuff I’m missing,” she reflected, but “I really am having a wonderful time.”

Rhoda Brooks, 84, is a neighbor of Affinito’s who’s finding joy in music these days, listening to stacks of CDs ranging from pop to classical. Still, she misses the freedom she once had.

“I just feel kind of deprived. I can’t even get outside,” Brooks said. “I can stand on my balcony but it’s not like walking the Carver trails or the Arboretum.”

Both residents understand the importance of following social distancing restrictions and had nothing but praise for the staff who are working overtime to make the switch from regular to virtual.

“I can’t say enough about what the staff here have done,” Affinito said.

“It’s a community, people share, people care,” Brooks agreed.

Beth Kuhlman is the executive director of The Waters of Excelsior and said she and her staff are determined to make quarantine as positive an experience as possible for their residents, including singalongs every day if they’re wanted.

“We’re going to do it again, and again, and again, and however much they want to do it,” Kulhman vowed. “It’s right now when we have to be really creative.”

Libby Jensen, of Summit Place Senior Living in Eden Prairie, emphasized that while staff are also under immense pressure during this time, it’s important to work through problems calmly for the sake of the residents. She compared it to a turbulent plane ride: passengers look to the flight attendant to see how they’re reacting to the bumps and base their reactions off of the professional’s.

“It’s a different kind of energy that the staff is putting out right now. You kind of go into crisis mode,” Jensen explained. “We’re trying very hard to stay one day at a time.”

Still, staff at Summit Place are committing to their heightened cleaning schedules and restricted visitation for the long run. So are staff at the Eden Prairie Senior Center, where manager Sue Bohnsack is filling her days with phone calls and planning for late summer instead of managing events and talking in-person with the 150 people she’d see on a normal weekday.

“I’m hoping that our doors will be open as soon as possible,” Bohnsack said. “We’ll definitely be having wide open doors and celebrating the opening of the building as soon as we can do that.”

In the face of so much uncertainty, it can be hard to stay positive, Jensen acknowledged, and while “for the most part are very understanding that we’re following the guidelines we’ve been given from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the MDH (Minnesota Department of Health),” she noted, “we have some grumpy people.”

Brooks’ and Affinito’s advice to other seniors on coping with social distancing moves beyond the details (make sure to have a routine, stay in touch with family and friends) and looks at the mental aspects of isolation. Affinito, who is a psychologist, advised finding a way to be in control during this chaotic time. For her, that’s meant dressing up every day as though she’s going out into the world.

“As soon as you feel you’ve lost control, then you’re going to be depressed,” she noted.

Brooks focused on community and suggested that seniors find a way to help their neighbors, from a distance.

“If you help others you can help yourself,” Brooks advised. “It goes both ways: by loving others, you love yourself.”

Chew toys like this peanut butter-filled Kong make for good pacifiers. OK, Wilms, get after it.