COVID-19: Diaries from Inside an Oshawa Retirement Residence Workers connect isolated residents with families amid pandemic

Emily Keevill, 27, and Tori Van Staveren, 23, stop to appreciate their work in honour of Mother's Day at the Wynfield Retirement Residence. Photo credit: Shanelle Somers

Two employees of an Oshawa retirement home are coming up with unique ways to keep more than 100 residents socially connected while the building’s residents are isolated in their rooms due to COVID-19.

Programs and lifestyle manager Emily Keevill, 27, and activity aide Tori Van Staveren, 23, work daily to ensure all residents at Oshawa’s Wynfield Retirement Residence remain hopeful and entertained despite a recent outbreak at the residence.

The outbreak came as a shock to the residence when the home was notified one of their residents tested positive for the COVID-19 virus after weeks spent in hospital.

“A big part of the job is fighting against isolation, especially now that everyone’s stuck in their rooms and how we can get people socialized, not bored, but still away from each other, so that’s a challenge,” says Keevill.

Up until this point Keevill and Van Staveren worked to entertain the residents at the home while maintaining social distancing among residents. Together they provided daily activity packages, music in the common areas and went door-to-door between meals to say hello.

The residence also has several other social distancing and public heath mandates implemented to ensure the safety of its residents.

But this lifestyle became difficult for elderly residents at the Wynfield Retirement Residence.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, residents of the Wynfield were used to their regular routines of retrieving their mail out of their mailboxes, heading to the bistro to grab a cup of tea or specialty coffee and chatting with their friends and family. They also attended many activities throughout the day like happy hours, bingo and ice cream socials.

However, isolation and the job of providing activities within a pandemic became much more difficult for Keevill and Van Staveren after they were informed a resident of the home was positive for the virus after spending weeks in hospital.

Public health chose to put the residence on outbreak as a precaution, which meant all residents were no longer able to leave their rooms. The dining room was to be shut down and all meals delivered to resident rooms three times a day.

Although the results of all people who may have been in contact with the positive resident came back negative, the residence was expected to remain on outbreak until public health deemed it was safe to have residents resume their somewhat regular lifestyle before the outbreak.

Keevill says this made some of the home’s elderly residents feel like they were in jail.

Emily Keevill, 27, showcases her work on the Mother's Day honour wall at the retirement residence.
Emily Keevill, 27, showcases her work on the Mother's Day honour wall at the retirement residence. Photo credit: Shanelle Somers

“I have had a few interactions that feel like despair, just looking me straight in the eyes and saying, ‘Emily, you don’t understand what it’s like being inside of the room and not being allowed to get out’,” says Keevill. “I’ve had people that are just so confused and think that their families have abandoned them, when they haven’t. Their families would love nothing more but to be there and embrace them.”

However, some residents dealing with dementia did not understand, Keevill says, adding some would cry and wonder when the outbreak would be over.

For Keevill and Van Staveren this meant they needed to figure out how to be a light in the midst of many residents feeling hopeless while they remained in their rooms.

Van Staveren says something she has enjoyed is putting together fun-themed bar carts. She says residents at the home like to enjoy a cocktail or hot tea in their rooms, but she says the most important part about the bar cart is having face-to-face interaction with residents.

Activity workers travel door to door to deliver beverages and snacks to residents with their French themed bar cart. (From left to right), Emily Keevil, Janneke Van Staveren, Tori Van Staveren.
Activity workers travel door to door to deliver beverages and snacks to residents with their French-themed bar cart. (From left) Emily Keevil, Janneke Van Staveren and Tori Van Staveren. Photo credit: Shanelle Somers

Van Staveren says the short, but meaningful, conversations can really make a resident’s day while they are in their rooms during outbreak.

Another social distancing activity the duo introduced is called ‘photo tag’.

“So what we’ve asked families to do is take a picture of themselves with a written note with really big writing in front of them saying, ‘hey, mom, we miss you can’t wait to see you and embrace you again’, and I will print that off and get it to the correct room,” says Keevill.

Keevill says the resident will then come up with their own message to respond back to their family. She says she will then take a photo of the resident holding their message up and email it to their family members.

Keevill and Van Staveren decided to continue the photo series by putting together something special for Mother’s Day called an ‘honour wall’.

The idea came from Lesley Paulino, general manager of the Wynfield Retirement Residence. The idea was to gather photos of family members with their mothers to create an eye-captivating wall of honour.

Family members and staff members all sent in their photos to honour their mothers.

“I think especially in this hard time, I think our biggest goal is that when we’re creating these honour walls and creating these things [activities], we want to make sure that it looks just really good,” says Van Staveren. “So, it’ll be a really great surprise for the residents as they come out.”

Tori Van Staveren , 23, showcases the wall created in honour of all Mother's at the retirement residence.
Tori Van Staveren , 23, showcases the wall created in honour of all mothers at the retirement residence. Photo credit: Shanelle Somers

Keevill says she hopes the residents enjoy all of the activities they have put together for them to stay connected to their loved ones and each other during the pandemic.

Currently she and Van Staveren are working on setting up Zoom calls with family members. The calls will take place as soon as the public health department lifts the outbreak at the retirement residence.

In the weeks to come Keevill says she is unsure what the future of activities will look like as things start to return to normal.

Until then Keevill and Van Staveren say they will continue to connect and entertain residents and look forward to when regular life at the Wynfield Retirement Residence will resume.