We’re Doing This Wrong

For being such an innovative, resourceful nation, there’s so much room for improvement in regards to how we care for our seniors. Honestly, we stink at it, especially in comparison to other countries. My career began in Italy where I lived and volunteered in a dementia care facility. I obviously expected communities in the US to differ aesthetically, but naively thought they’d run the same. I was completely wrong. I’ll save my list of differences for another post, but there’s one in particular that’s intrigued me since becoming a new mom: intergenerational care.

Sure, we have intergenerational programs in American facilities. We’ll invite Girl Scouts in for a craft activity and have toddlers come trick or treat on Halloween. At best, we’re doing these things monthly (though quarterly is much more common). So far in my career, I’ve never seen a program involving babies, and I certainly haven’t come across a shared nursery/nursing home space. In the US, there are allegedly ~110 such facilities (the majority being day centers, not live-in communities). In the UK, on the other hand, there are over 500.

I’ve brought baby Leo to visit my current and past assisted livings several times since he received his first round of shots. It was immediately evident that his presence was so meaningful; residents (both nonnas and nonnos) light up when they see him, even if he’s snoozing in his carrier. Frankly, he’s not much more interactive when awake – at only four months old, the most he’s doing is smiling, cooing, and pulling mamma’s hair. Apparently that’s enough because they absolutely adore him.

Human connection is as basic as our need for food, shelter, and water. It’s innate. Growing old, we know, can feel so isolating. Both children and adults can benefit from each other’s company. As a Stanford study points out, the elderly are one of the best groups to spend time with young kids, not only because of their wisdom and insight but also due to their patience and availability. They’re able to provide the kind of stimulation that little ones need to thrive. They welcome meaningful, productive activity and engagement. They seek purpose in their lives.

Today, one of my favorite nonnas’s purpose was to calm a tired, fussy Leo. Without hesitation (or my asking), she sang to him. She held his fat little hands and recited lullabies, as nearby residents (now surrounding us) chimed in. God, it was a beautiful moment – and it worked.

I’m still on maternity leave, so for now these visits will have to suffice. But I can’t silence this voice telling me they’re not enough. We need to do better on a much larger scale. Intergenerational care should be more than the occasional recital or holiday treat. Little Leo, we’ve got our work cut out for us.

No More Traveling Light..?

Admittedly, it’s been quite a while since I’ve written a travel post. To be fair, it’s also been a long time since travel has been somewhat normal. Between the pandemic, working in healthcare, and getting pregnant, I haven’t left the country since February of 2020. Man, it’s even more depressing to see that in writing.

As things are very slowly starting to get back to the way they were, I’m looking so forward to returning abroad. In the meantime, though, and while we wait for our little one’s passport to arrive, we figured a domestic vacation would be a great test run. Traveling with a baby is, after all, a bit more complicated. Or is it?

One thing I’ve continuously heard is, “No more traveling light now that you have a kid!” I hate nothing more than checking bags when I fly and lugging a bunch of stuff around, so I was dreading finding out what I was in for. Then I remembered things don’t always have to be as others say. If I accepted other people’s opinions as facts, I’d have assumed weekend trips out of the country were impossible and pointless. In reality, they’ve been the best trips of my life (and I’ve taken nearly 70 of them).

We packed everything we needed in two backpacks for 5 days away with a 3 month old. In other words, we brought the same amount of “luggage” as we did pre-baby. Thankfully, his clothes are tiny & we were able to fit 55 diapers (too many, which was better than not having enough), a pack of wipes, bottles, and formula to supplement my milk – all in my backpack alongside my own clothes/toiletries/shoes. Some takeaways from our first family vaca:

I’m so happy the trip turned out the way it did. I was fully prepared to have to rent a car and drive all the way home if the flight was a disaster, but thankfully it was a breeze! The icing on the cake: we returned home to Leo’s passport in our mailbox. Let the adventures begin. 😉

Seven Years

Seven years. This month marks seven years since I left for a three-month volunteer stint in Italy, which changed not only my career path, but my entire life. Though I’d worked overseas before, this trip was different; I quit my job at the kennel with no plan B prior to departure. I forced myself out of my comfort zone and committed to diving into the field of senior care head first without a safety net. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

I consider August of 2014 to be the start of my “career”. Upon returning home, I officially joined the industry first in sales and marketing, then as Assistant Executive Director, and finally as Executive Director in 2017. It’s been quite a ride – a rollercoaster, really, with insanely high highs and incredibly challenging lows. To summarize, seven things I’ve done in the past seven years include:

1. Being a punching bag. No one wants to move into an assisted living community, and they certainly let you know it. The guilt families feel is heavy and often taken out on staff. We know not to take it personally, but that doesn’t make it any easier to handle.

2. Being the bearer of bad news. Having to share information that someone doesn’t necessarily want to hear can be brutal. For instance, explaining that there’s been a decline in their loved one’s physical or mental health. The worst, though, is being the one who delivers news that someone’s passed, especially considering how much you, too, have loved that someone. It never gets easier.

3. Running a building with little to no resources. My first job as an ED was for a company that was pennies from bankruptcy. Like, no-food-to-feed-our-residents level broke. I’ll share those details eventually, but I liken that time to the Great Depression; I felt like a mother sheltering her children from insufferable financial challenges. As dramatic as that sounds, it was truly that difficult.

4. Wearing many hats. There’s no way I could ever give a straight answer to the question “What’s a typical day like in your role?”. Operational tasks aside, I’ve hosted activities, served in the dining room, cleaned apartments, built furniture (in 4” heels, obvi), given bed baths, and driven the bus.. to name a few.

5. Protecting our nonnos/nonnas and team members at all costs. There’s nothing we wouldn’t collectively do to keep our residents and one another safe from this virus. There’s also nothing more gutting than when someone gets sick. God, it’s been a rough year.

6. Advocating for my loves. My dad has always said that if you do the right thing and provide good care, you’ll be successful – everything else will work itself out. I take my position and the goings-on at my community so personally, and feel fortunate to work amongst likeminded individuals with the biggest hearts (and work ethics to match).

7. Feeling more fulfilled than I could ever put into words. As insanely challenging as the past seven years have been, I wouldn’t change a thing. I know I’m biased, but I swear there is no profession on Earth that is more rewarding than working with seniors.. no feeling more gratifying than helping to make sure one’s end of life is filled with as much dignity, peace, and love as you can possibly provide.

Here’s to the next seven!

Similar but Different

My loves never cease to amaze me. Even in their absence, I continue to learn and grow from all they’ve taught me (both directly and indirectly). Now a month into motherhood, I can confidently say that while I still have no idea what I’m doing, I’ve at least been able to apply past experiences to current situations. Below are the top three examples of said principles:

  • There’s a reason for everything. Nine times out of ten, unless they’re colic, babies aren’t crying for no reason; their tears are indicative of an unmet need. Similarly, the needs of those living with dementia can be expressed through their behaviors and emotions (i.e., agitation or unrest). Determining what that need is can be challenging, but knowing to investigate it is half the battle. In not-so-little Leo’s case, it’s usually hunger. 😉
  • There are good days and bad days. Like I said, nine times out of ten the tears are justifiable. Sometimes, however, it’s simply a crappy day.. a day of feeling off, tired, upset, or just not in the mood. This brings me to my next point –
  • Give yourself some grace. You’re not always going to get it right. The interventions you put in place yesterday might prove useless today. Just when you feel you’ve figured things out, your outcomes may change, and that’s ok. You’re doing your best and tomorrow’s a clean slate.

I’m sure month two will bring its own set of lessons. Fingers crossed they’re also ones I’ve learned before in some capacity!

Baby Leo

This month’s post is a bit different from my usual, as its subject is roughly 80 years younger than those I typically reference. 😉 After much shared anticipation, ever-changing gender guesses, and endless name suggestions, baby Leo joined us one minute past his due date — he was born at midnight on the dot on 6/23, weighing in at 8lbs 13oz. Little man can’t wait to meet his bonus nonnos and nonnas.

Brutal but Beautiful

Let me preface this post by being perfectly clear: pregnancy is brutal. I like to think I have a high pain/nausea/everything tolerance but man, this has been tough. I’m in the home stretch and counting down the minutes until it’s over and our baby is in my arms. However.. sharing this time with my residents has been indescribable. I remember a friend in the industry telling me years ago that the seniors she encountered were way more excited to partake in her wedding planning than they were when she was with child. It surprised me but I took her word for it; I had pretty low expectations when I shared the news this holiday season, especially after seeing how into the wedding they were (she was right about that excitement, at least). My God, was she wrong about the rest: to say they’re pumped about this little one would be a gross understatement.

I often liken working in senior living to having 100+ bonus nonnos and nonnas that you get to be around all the time. As my career has evolved, I’ve loved sharing milestones with them and seeking their guidance and advice. Pregnancy has been the most special of them all thus far. Between daily food deliveries (“for the baby!”) to scolding me about my heels and keeping their hands on my belly to feel for kicks, it’s so incredibly touching. They’re even helping me come up with names. Many wouldn’t be able to tell you my name or how they know me, but the second they see me waddle in with my growing bump, they light up. They’re suddenly reminded — maybe of their own experience or someone else they knew, but definitely of a happy, loving time.

I asked a few of my loves to share some advice for new moms (read: me!) this past Mother’s Day, and the responses were so sweet. It’s one of many questions I’ve asked throughout this journey, and I hold their insight very close to my heart (especially when they assure me that yes, I am cut out for this and my body will bounce back ;)). I feel so fortunate to have them in my life and can’t wait to share their love with this baby. ❤

Not-So-Little Mamma: A Followup

Throughout this entire pandemic, I’ve been blown away by how much of an impact my dog Rosie has had on our residents. I wrote the below over three years ago now (!!) and while I knew at that time she was destined for big things, I could’ve never imagined just how big they (or she) would be.

In 2018, I adopted Rosie with the intention of having her be our “house dog”. Admittedly, I copied the idea from a fellow assisted living company (who I coincidentally work for now!); house pets were a signature touch of theirs and, naturally, I loved it. Since she came home with me at just 8 weeks old, my hunny’s been coming to work every single day (no call-outs allowed). We’re a package deal, Pose and I, and I’m certain this nightmare of a year would’ve been even more difficult had it not been for her sweet soul.

My loves were confined to their rooms for a sad, isolating, scary ~12 months. At first, I could see she was rattled by that: Where was everyone? What happened to the hustle & bustle, the dining room snacks, the endless affection? Why was everybody so on edge all of a sudden?! There was a shift from being center of attention to a lost pup, unsure of how to spend her time with her newly-masked coworkers. Eventually, though, she found a new purpose, perhaps even more crucial than the original: suite stops. Rosie made daily rounds to visit with, comfort, and cheer up our nonnos and nonnas when they could no longer come down to her.

Obviously, her presence didn’t fix things – 2020 was an f’ing nightmare. I like to think it made things better, though, if only marginally. A particularly touching memory I’ll cherish forever is pictured below, featuring a devastated resident attending her own son’s funeral via FaceTime, with Rosie by her side. Mamma, “thankful” doesn’t begin to describe it. ❤

As if it wasn’t already evident from previous posts (and my Instagram bio), I am a huge dog lover. I worked through undergrad and grad school at the most incredible kennel, and I grew up with Shepherds and Labs. I’ve always hoped to somehow combine my love for dogs and seniors – to do meaningful work that involves both. This weekend, I took the first step toward doing just that: I rescued a three-month-old puppy. I know, I know…I work 65+ hours a week, I’m never home, and to say I travel often would be an understatement. I promise there is a method to my madness.

It’s no secret that the effects dogs have on people of all ages are immense. Within an instant, they can make us feel happy, loved, and safe – simultaneously excited and calm. Physically, they keep us active and in turn help our hearts. Dogs reduce stress (except during the housebreaking stages perhaps) and teach us lessons. For seniors especially, they can be pivotal in decreasing loneliness and improving mood; dogs live in the here and now. They don’t worry about tomorrow, and according to Dr. Jay Granat, tomorrow can be very scary for someone who is elderly:

“Having a pet helps the senior focus on something other than physical problems and negative preoccupations about loss or aging.”

And focus on them they do. That goes for both physical impairments and cognitive ones. Individuals with dementia (particularly in earlier stages) tend to be extremely stressed, and understandably so; they recognize that something’s wrong but can’t necessarily distinguish it from what is right. They’re not only confused, but also frightened and embarrassed. Here’s where my little mamma comes in:

“I sort of think that anybody with Alzheimer’s could benefit by a friendly little dog. Somebody they can play with and talk to – it’s kinda nice to talk to a dog that you know is not going to talk back. And you can’t make a mistake that way. … My dog knows things about me before I know them myself. … The one thing I know is that the dog is with me, and when she’s with me I at least have some solace, even if I don’t know the way.”

– Cary Henderson, Partial View

Rosie, that’s your cue. Introducing the newest member of our team and family:

The impact this little girl has had on our residents in three short days is immeasurable. I’m completely blown away. I have no doubt she will continue to amaze me. She is, after all, a dog ❤ one of the only beings that will ever love us without condition or complication. Mamma, we are so thankful for you already.

Fearful but Resilient

Last month’s post-vaccine poll left me feeling disappointed and concerned. As I mentioned in February’s post, a shocking 30% of residents said they were not yet ready for communal dining and group activities, despite the fact that they’d been isolating for an entire year (and fully vaccinated, no less!). They were scared, and that tore my heart in pieces. I’m happy to report that this month, however, they’re singing a different tune: we’ve since opened up internally and even began welcoming visitors this week. The energy throughout the community is unreal.

My loves never cease to amaze me. While we all (im)patiently waited for updated guidelines, they sat tight. Families and staff rallied together to fight for change, and they waited peacefully. When new rules (and restrictions) rolled out, not one complained. Every nonna and nonno was thankful and content; there was no dwelling on what they’d endured, only celebrating what was to come. Despite some fears, they were resilient.

As for me this month – I’m still scared (the new state order basically threw all logic out the window), but I’m hopeful. I feel encouraged after this week’s reunions and inspired by my residents’ strength. Things can only get better from here.

Surprising Effect

This time last year I was self-isolating at home. Not by choice, of course, but as a result of a newly implemented policy at work: anyone who had recently traveled to Asia or Italy had to quarantine for 14 days. Coincidentally, I was in Rome the weekend of the Italian COVID-19 outbreak just days prior. Despite having spent nearly a week back in the community and the fact that I felt fine, no exceptions would be made. I could’ve never anticipated how much life would change upon my return to our assisted living.

Our residents have been locked down for nearly one year. Research has found that chronic social isolation and loneliness can alter gene activity in ways that increase one’s risk of diseases like dementia. They can also suppress our immune system and cause depression. None of these effects are shocking and, sadly, I can personally attest to witnessing them all. Others, however, have honestly surprised me.

We wrapped up our vaccine clinic this month with over 95% of residents receiving the Pfizer shot (woohoo!). The Department of Health has yet to release new post-injection guidelines, which has us extra anxious for change. I decided to send out a simple Google poll with one of my weekly updates to gauge how everybody’s feeling: would they be comfortable at least opening internally following the administration of the second dose? Or did they prefer we keep residents quarantined?

To clarify, it wasn’t family responses that surprised me. They were a unanimous “YES, please resume communal dining and group activities”. Residents, on the other hand, answered differently. A shocking 30% of those polled said NO. Why? Because they’re afraid. The same people who initially said we were being soft, who have experienced so much in their lives (i.e., full blown war), are fearful. They’re scared of returning to normalcy, of the virus itself. Maybe it was naïve to think they wouldn’t be, but it makes me so, so sad to know that they are. For some reason, this side effect is extra heartbreaking.

I guess I’m scared too. I’m afraid to make the wrong decisions, to encourage and comfort them but have it backfire. No matter what, though, I know we can’t keep doing this. We need to take our chances; slowly and safely, we have to reunite, bravely fighting fear, loneliness, and this virus together.

I’ve Almost Forgotten

We’re going on one year of this nightmare and I feel like we’ve sadly shifted from “temporary precautions” to “new normal”. Not by choice, of course, and we remain hopeful, but we’re starting to forget. I hate that I’m forgetting what senior living really feels like. Actually, there’s a lot about this that I can’t stand:

  • I hate always knowing exactly where to find someone. I’ve almost forgotten what it feels like to have a family member pop in (without an appointment, rapid test, and PPE) & have to search the building for their loved one, who could be in a friend’s apartment, on a bus outing, in an activity.. anywhere! Anywhere but their apartment, where they’d merely sleep, not pass time.
  • I hate not having to fill the bus with gas. I’ve almost forgotten what it feels like to pull up to an attendant with a van full of residents, excited to reach our destination and busting my chops about waiting until we’re almost on E. We were always almost on E, because we were always out and about. I haven’t filled the tank since March.
  • I hate our empty calendar. I’ll be honest, I *used to* hate our monthly activity planning meetings – they’d inevitably run an hour over because we could never agree on what programs to add or which restaurants to try. I’ve almost forgotten how the bickering would sound, how eyes would roll, and how every time I’d cave to appease them (andddd to finally end the meeting). I never thought I’d miss that Calendar Council, but I’d do anything to host one now.
  • I hate that there’s no more girl talk. After dinner, some ladies would gather in the sitting area outside my office and chat about the latest gossip, with Rosie laying at their feet. God, I loved listening to (and joining) my girls.

I guess there’s not much about this I don’t hate. I can’t wait until it’s all forgotten.