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Corona crisis in a nursing home: challenging, but enriching

The Pflegimuri nursing home has had to adjust from being an open house to living as an isolated, high-risk unit. Although so far no one at the home has had COVID-19, the coronavirus has had a huge impact on their lives. However, hygiene officer Manuela Joller believes that the last few weeks have also had a positive effect.

Text: Katharina Rilling; photos: Marco Rosasco

Manuela Joller, as a hygiene officer, you’ve surely had a big role to play in recent weeks...

Manuela Joller: Yes, it’s been tough, intense and challenging. Looking back, I don’t know how we got through it so smoothly.

How has your work changed over the last few weeks?

We set up a task force. Fortunately we already had an excellent hygiene concept in place. After all, the norovirus and flu epidemics have always been an issue for nursing homes. But we also developed new measures. For example, we made more bottles of disinfectant available and made sure everyone was aware of the hygiene regulations. In addition to hygiene, I’m also responsible for medical purchasing. Procuring all the necessary protective equipment and hand and surface disinfectants was very time-consuming. However, thanks to our efficient networks we always had sufficient materials. We also made professional working clothes compulsory. And the restaurant was closed.

Which measures have the residents found hardest to bear?

The people who live here aren’t really able to get out and about any more. So, we usually bring the outside world to them. Our restaurant is open to the public and we organise a lot of events. And suddenly this was no longer possible. Gradually closing the home off – until the ban on visitors was eventually put in place – was very difficult. Our residents have found it very tough. It’s hard to stick to the social distancing rules. For example, we’ve divided the dining tables into residential groups, which means that some people are having to eat in the corridor. But, overall, most residents are coping surprisingly well.

Do the elderly handle crises differently to young people?

Generally speaking, people get used to new situations pretty quickly. Older people also have a completely different set of strategies for reacting to crises. In their long lives they’ve experienced personal hardships, such as perhaps the Second World War or foot-and-mouth disease. So, although this is a new situation, they’re used to dealing with a fate they can’t change. And they can handle going without. You can really see that they’ve experienced crises before.

Were the residents scared of COVID-19?

To some extent. Many withdrew into themselves at the start. However, I heard one resident say that she wasn’t scared and – in fact this would be a good time for her to go. Having said that, she was the first one to book a hair appointment when the ban was lifted (laughs). In the home, you always hear talk of how and when you want to die. The virus intensified these discussions.

Most residents wouldn’t have wanted to go to hospital if they’d caught the disease. We all had the horrible images from Italy in our heads. However, we were also all motivated to make the best of the situation. So we encouraged the residents to get creative in order to get rid of the feelings of frustration.

Tell us more!

A nursing home isn’t only about dealing with the bodily functions, such as eating and washing, but also about offering support and encouraging creativity. So, we thought up ways of keeping our residents busy while maintaining the social distancing rules. We quickly got the “Tele pflegimuri” TV station up and running. We broadcast our gym class with Rita, for example. And we filmed home stories, in which the director of the home also took part. We also used the channel to show church services and travel reports. And the residents could request songs that would be played in the musical request programme.

Everyone played their part. For example, the gardener gave out flowers for which the residents made the vases themselves. The kitchen handed out chocolate cake with letters of encouragement. When someone celebrated their birthday, we sang Happy Birthday in the park while the residents watched through the windows and pulled up little gifts in a basket. We’ve published touching tales from the corona crisis under the  “Good News” section on our website.

You and your colleagues did all this in addition to your tough daily routine.

It’s important to us all that our residents live a fulfilled life. Our work may be tough, but it’s also very enriching. That gives us strength. Our message to everyone was: It’s a difficult, challenging time, but it’s not all bad. Life goes on, and it’s not just about surviving. We need to thrive! Time and time again I hear residents saying that they’re very happy to be living in a home right now. Others are really isolated in their flats.

Were the residents able to keep in touch with their relatives?

Yes, we found different ways of doing so. Conversations were held over window sills, postcards sent, phone calls made. We also used our iPads to allow the residents to communicate via Skype, Facetime, etc. I’m pleased to say that today the residential groups are really living up to their name. As the residents had less physical contact with their families, they took much more of an interest in one another. The coronavirus created a new dynamic. But it’s high time that visitors were allowed again – under certain conditions. And the residents are delighted.