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Issues include finding supplies and providing social interaction for residents

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Mike Shmulevsky, owner of Sofia's Home, unloads groceries he bought from Fred Meyer into this car for the residents at his assisted living center in Wilsonville.

This story was updated from its original version

Though recent reports have shown that younger people also are exposed to considerable risk of hospitalization if they're afflicted with COVID-19, statistics indicate that seniors are still the most vulnerable population forbecoming seriously ill or dying.

This, along with other concerns like gathering enough supplies and the potential for residents to feel isolated due to social distancing measures, has created a set of challenges for assisted living facilities of all sizes in Wilsonville.

Supplies

Mike Shmulevsky, who owns Sofia's Home — two small Wilsonville and Tualatin based elderly care facilities — acquires most of his supplies from local stores. The scarcity and rationing of coveted supplies like toilet paper and paper towels at grocery stores has precipitated difficulties and frustration for his facility.

Staff is spending an inordinate amount of time going to the grocery store, and Shmulevsky has been forced to buy supplies on Amazon.com that take weeks to arrive at an exorbitant cost, he said.

"Three weeks ago I ordered paper towels through Amazon, and they finally arrived today. They double charged me," Shmulevsky said. "That puts us in the position of instead of providing care we have to hunt for those items. Our population is vulnerable. It's pretty hard."

Shmulevsky thinks grocery stores should exempt rationing policies for small elderly care providers. And the Oregon Department of Health and Human Services is providing such facilities a letter they can bring to grocery stores requesting the exception.

"It's essential for us to go to the store and instead of buying one role of paper, maybe we can buy two or three. We're not stocking for ourselves. We're stocking for other people," Shmulevsky said.

Camelia Apetroaei, the owner of Springwater Care Home, another small adult care home in town, said the facility has enough supplies for now, but that circumstances could become challenging if COVID-19 effects continue into the summer. For now, she said masks have been particularly hard to come by, but nurses who visit the facility have been good about bringing their own masks and gloves.

"I think every provider I spoke with in Clackamas County needs masks. I think that's one supply everyone is in demand of," Apetroaei said.

On the other hand, larger facilities like The Springs at Wilsonville and SpringRidge in Charbonneau have had less trouble collecting supplies because they're a part of purchasing groups that allow them access to a variety of vendors across the country.

Still, The Springs Living CEO and founder Fee Stubblefield is worried about a potential mask shortage at some point.

"We're scrambling for what we need. The biggest thing is personal protective devices for our staff and residents. While we have backup supplies, those are being deployed," said. "We're keeping our fingers crossed that state and federal governments get their act together and provide supplies for senior housing and care because our supplies won't last forever."

For now, though, he has been heartened that community members have gone out of their way to sew fabric masks for residents and staff at the facility.

"We've seen great community outreach. People are pitching in and making masks for us," Stubblefield said.

Isolation

One consequence of precautionary measures like social distancing, severely limiting visitation, and suspended communal dining is that seniors who live in these facilities spend more time alone.

"We have one person who is very depressed because her husband can't visit her. That means we have to spend more time with them, even though we're already thin on people," Shmulevsky said.

In turn, centers are trying to provide seniors some opportunity for interaction with the outside world.

Marquis Wilsonville, for instance, has initiated a program called Operation Send Seniors Love, encouraging the community to make a card, write a letter or draw a picture and drop it off at the facility.

Also, both bigger and smaller facilities are making a point to provide residents more opportunities to connect with their families via communication technology.

"Any time you have to self-isolate, we want to make certain you are giving them opportunities to do more virtual communication," said SpringRidge Executive Director Garth Hallman. "We're teaching residents how to use Facetime; we can do Skype. We're communicating with residents and checking in on them and making sure they're having connection with staff."

SpringRidge and The Springs also provide residents the opportunity to get some fresh air.

"People need to get out and walk, and we have large campuses where people can exercise and get around," Stubblefield said.

But seniors aren't the only ones impacted by isolation.

"This is a very difficult time for family members to not be able to visit loved ones. We do a lot of Facetime communication. That seems to be working for now," Apetroaei said.

Mona Krueger, a Wilsonville resident and the daughter of Sofia's Home resident Nora Krueger, used to take her mom to the mall, on walks and other excursions to "brighten her spirits and make her feel happy" every weekend.

Since visitations were restricted, they cannot visit Nora Krueger. Still, Mona Krueger is put at ease knowing her mom resides at Sofia's Home.

"We feel bad. You wonder in the back of your mind 'Is she missing us? Is she OK?' We worry about her but know she's in really good hands," she said.

Employment

During the past few years of nationwide low unemployment, Stubblefield said The Springs had struggled at times to find qualified workers. But one silver lining of the bubbling economic downturn is that The Springs has received many more applicants than previously.

"Now the challenge is not people leaving jobs (and having to rehire) but employees staying home from work. We're able to staff all our shifts and are doing well," he said.

Shmulevsky also has been looking for workers, but said it's a challenge because they cannot enter the facility before they are hired due to visitation restrictions.

He added: "We're trying to hire people, and it's very hard. They feel they can demand any money they want because of the situation."

Risk

Leaders in the assisted living industry have noticed the perception, based partly on reports of COVID-19 breaking out in senior facilities in Oregon and across the nation, that such facilities pose a greater risk of disease dissemination than independent living.

However, they believe the opposite is true.

Hallman said his facility screens employees daily, including checking their temperature to make sure they are healthy, and does the same for essential workers who are allowed to visit the facility.

"We had an employee call me who woke up with a cough. That person is going to be away from the community for seven days after that symptom," Hallman said.

These facilities also aggressively sanitize and impose social distancing. And The Springs provides paid time off and child care benefits for workers, providing them more incentive to stay home rather than pose a risk.

"That's one of the biggest ways for us to make an impact that has forestalled the coronavirus in our communities," Stubblefield said.

According to Shmulevsky, the benefit of a small facility is that there are fewer people who enter and could spread the virus. On the other hand, he said if one person is infected, it could spread very quickly due to the close quarters.

Apetroaei said her facility would quarantine a resident if they thought they may have contracted the virus and make sure staff wears protective gear.

Despite some risks, Stubblefield thought that people who live independently expose themselves to risk to a much higher degree than those in an assisted living facility.

"People can't stay in their own home forever. They have to access medical care, supplies and support. Our residents don't. Vendors drop from the street or front door. We sanitize. Food supplies and all that goes through screening and protocols," he said. "We think measures are going to show older adults are far safer being in a secure environment, like we have."


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