Many of the elderly from our community have been secluded in local nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities since the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Generally, patients participated in daily activities all geared to keep their moods upbeat and their smiles forever widening. The onset of the virus left many unanswered questions, many that persist today. A devastating coronavirus outbreak at a Washington State nursing home in the beginning of our nation’s struggles shed light on the need to ensure the safety at institutions that house our vulnerable aging population, considering their close living quarters.

Unfortunately, our state did not handle the situation well in the beginning. “The governor’s March 25 directive ordering long term care facilities and communities like ours to not deny admission for any resident infected with COVID-19 will live in infamy,” stated Samuel Horowitz, administrator for Boulevard ALP Assisted Living in Fresh Meadows. Even with Cuomo’s regrettable order, our local facilities showed they truly care, and made herculean efforts in helping residents and their families feel safe and at ease.

Showcasing the strength of character at these establishments, and the determination of the staff to provide those in their care with calm amidst the uncertainty outside, does not require much investigation.  Matthew Ostreicher, director of operations for Meadow Park Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center also Fresh Meadows felt the pressures of the disease firsthand. Tasked with ensuring his staff was equipped with adequate protection, Ostreicher never took no for an answer, always ensuring safety came first, no matter the financial cost. “From the onslaught of the virus, our facility continuously followed each regulation advised by the New York State Department of Health. We worked extremely hard to keep a supply of masks and isolation gowns on hand, keeping an open channel with the DOH, especially when our vendors could not come through and accepted State assistance of protective gear when available,” said Ostreicher. 

Daily reports of the infamous curve led one to believe that the virus did not have many silver linings. Yet, tales of courage, kindness, thoughtfulness, and concern come to the minds of those on the frontlines, especially the staff and administration of our geriatric care centers.

A family member of Malvina K. resides at Boulevard ALP Assisted Living, also in Fresh Meadows. To be successful, long-term care facilities must recognize that the adjustment to this newfound living occurs for both resident and their relatives alike. “All levels of staffing at Boulevard ALP have done their utmost to provide care, protection, and nurturing to their residents,” explained Malvina in a recent note to the administration. “Our family cannot express enough thanks for remaining ahead of the curve and for the facility’s efforts in keeping the large population of our most vulnerable pillars of society safe.”

For its part, Boulevard ALP’s administration offers immense appreciation to US Congresswoman Grace Meng of the 6th congressional district in New York City for guaranteeing their facility was equipped with ample face coverings for its entire campus. In a show of thoughtfulness, residents’ families also provided homemade facemasks for the dedicated staff. “Utilizing our network, we have been able to stay fully stocked with all necessary PPE and remain very diligent to ensuring our facility is disinfected multiple times a day,” said Samuel Horowitz, the administrator.

In a similar light, Miriam A. joined her sisters in expressing appreciation to Boulevard workers for the wonderful care provided to their mom over this challenging period. “Our mother constantly celebrates the staff’s attention to detail and overall compassion for her every need.”

Like the local humor signified in the New York State Department of Transportation-controlled highway signs flashing the public service announcement “Outside with No Mask? Fuhhgeddaboutit!” – staff at area nursing hubs have taken this to heart, embracing the need for protection within the confines of its facilities. These defenses have been fortified with regular temperature checks for staff at entrances, and gathering areas being sealed off from gardens to lounges and public area lavatories. Personal protective equipment, or PPE for short, has become the norm for those who interact with residents, and all options have been explored to ensure the wellbeing of those in their care.

Jennifer S. has a sister living in a local nursing establishment, and being the only nearby relative, she was quite concerned for her sibling’s well-being. “Our family members are trapped in Europe and have not been given clearance to fly back to the States,” stated Jennifer. “Our family is more relaxed knowing the nursing facility is on near lockdown, only accessible to healthy staff. Moreover, the open lines of communication under these difficult circumstances provide a much-needed sense of reassurance.”

For the families of those receiving medical care, the isolation from their loved ones has been quite taxing to say the least. Facilities like Meadow Park and Boulevard ALP have gone to extreme lengths to guarantee their residents can interact with family. The moments that leave the deepest impressions of affection and compassion for residents and staff occur when family members gather in the open areas below the windows of their cherished loved ones to send kisses and hugs in the grandest form of social distancing. “Denying entry for visitors and temporarily forbidding residents to leave the building, unless medically necessary, has been a particularly difficult but necessary procedure,” explained Horowitz. “The support of residents’ families and our amazing staff have certainly been heartwarming.”

Once his facility was closed to the public, Ostreicher’s staff crafted a hotline designed for family members to reach either a nurse or nursing supervisor to receive pertinent information on their loved ones. “Unprecedented times call for extraordinary measures, and a dial-in process simplifies communication, allowing children to learn the status of their parents, keeping them relaxed amidst a general rising public doubt in the nursing home industry.”

The stories of inspiration do not stop there. A herculean effort was seen in another way at Boulevard ALP for a special quarantine birthday queen who turned 103 while in isolation. Her walker was decorated, and acknowledgement was given on this milestone accomplishment, a pause in time those in attendance will remember for a lifetime.

Riki Gewirtz, patient representative and community liaison for Five Towns Premier, gave another point of view. “We have really come together during this pandemic. Our team has remained strong and positive throughout COVID-19. We hosted a parade in honor of our staff, where the fire department, police department, and local officials came together one day on the streets of Woodmere to celebrate all our heroes.”

Chaim R.’s father broke a hip back in February and was regaining his strength at a neighborhood rehab. Chaim and his caring sister would often visit their dad to check on his progress. “I have always lived near my father, and honestly cannot recall such a long duration where we have not physically met,” detailed Chaim. “Still, these past weeks of lockdown have not been as isolated as first envisioned. My sister and I have become accustomed to technological methods of staying in touch with our father and one another. I have now added the word FaceTime to my personal dictionary,” joked Chaim, who fulfills both the mitzvos of bikur cholim (visiting the sick) and kibud av (honoring one’s parents) by checking in on his father with the help of the nursing staff and their fleet of trusty iPads.

When the Margaret Tietz Nursing & Rehabilitation Center site in Jamaica, Queens, was quarantined from the public, near daily communication with loyal family members had to be established. IPads were donated to help the devoted staff members FaceTime with residents’ families and bring a virtual experience into their lives. “Such a project requires a commitment of many man-hours, and the facility has outdone itself, keeping families informed and in touch with their adored relatives,” revealed Linda Spiegel, director of public affairs for the Margaret Tietz Center. A Zoom-based program is being developed to bring residents new venues of entertainment. “Our recreational staff has taken a positive approach to bring new wonderful programming within our campus,” continued Spiegel. “In the days ahead, our stunning garden will once again open on a limited basis with new regulations in place to allow residents to breathe fresh air and experience the outdoors. We hope to soon bring an outdoor concert.”

Another area family was privileged to have their matriarch returned home as her condition had drastically improved following an elongated stay in a community rehabilitation center. “We are a tight-knit family, all living under the same roof, and our mom has always made the decisions that matter most. A Pesach Seder without her at our side was, simply put, unexpected,” offered a son struggling to reason the world around us. “We are a very private family and would rather not disclose which facility cared for our mom, but collectively we are pleased to report the cooperation of the staff was unparalleled. We came to terms with presumably being in the dark of daily updates and were thrilled when new communication portals were devised.”

In times of peril, centers rely on community support to weather the storm. Margaret Tietz extended praise for the major relief given throughout the pandemic. “A local shul stepped forward to provide pizza for the staff in the thick of the struggle, Dunkin’ Donuts brought in treats, and a prize-based program was instituted for students to send in encouraging cards that were later distributed to residents of our facility,” reported Spiegel.

Group programs have long been central to the daily activities at nursing homes and rehabs. The new reality we find ourselves brought fresh ideas to the forefront. “A rolling musical caravan of sorts staffed by our resident deejay was developed to bring cheer in the hallways of Margaret Tietz Center during the day,” said Siegel. One resident remarked to an employee, “Music allows me to stay calm and reduces my stress levels. I often participated in the communal shows and was saddened when these activities were nixed. I am relieved that now I can play over the tunes I have heard in the corridor and am able to stay upbeat.”

At the Five Towns Premier, a similar program was launched. “Every Monday and Wednesday afternoon, our recreation department plays music and dances through the halls to keep our residents positive. All the residents get involved. It is something they look forward to each week, and it is a beautiful sight to behold!” said Gewirtz.

When we physical-distance at home, it is often not primarily to protect ourselves but more importantly the elders of society and those who find themselves at risk. These actions honor the moral and social equality of our population, irrespective of their mental or physical condition. A simple email of faith or card of hope can give those stuck in remote solitude the motivation needed to remain optimistic about tomorrow. The same holds true for the families of those with loved ones at centers, and administrators work to keep all apprised of their conditions. Amy S. is one such family member who sent the team at Boulevard ALP a note of appreciation. “Each time our family receives an extremely thoughtful and caring email, we feel immense gratitude for the facility’s efforts. Words cannot express how lucky we feel to have Phyllis in the expert hands of your crew.” Amy concluded with an overall sentiment often repeated by families with loved ones under the care of healthcare workers: “Thank you for putting yourselves on the line each and every day so the rest of us can sleep better at night.”

A previous version incorrectly stated that Matthew Ostreicher of Meadow Park Rehabilitation was quoted as saying,  “The governor’s March 25 directive ordering long term care facilities and communities like ours to not deny admission for any resident infected with COVID-19 will live in infamy.” This quote should have been attributed to Samuel Horowitz, Executive Director of Boulevard ALP. We apologize to Mr. Ostreicher for the error.