The Square
News and perspectives from Covia.

During a recent webinar, Covia leadership gathered with prospective residents to give insight into management and operations at Covia. The webinar panel included Mary McMullin, Chief Strategy and Advancement Officer; Diana Jamison, Chief Financial Officer; Ron Schaefer, Chief Operating Officer; and Mary Linde, St. Paul’s Towers Executive Director. Katharine Miller of the Covia Foundation moderated the discussion.

The webinar offered prospective residents the opportunity to ask questions about what is currently going on at Covia from a leadership perspective, including COVID-19 preparation, the upcoming affiliation, and adapting to socially distanced activities. Part 1 about Covia’s response to COVID-19 is below.

Preparation

Covia has approached the COVID-19 pandemic both from a community standpoint as well as system-wide. At the community level, Mary Linde, Executive Director at St. Paul’s Towers in Oakland, detailed how St. Paul’s prepared after hearing about COVID-19.

“When I first learned on January 20th that COVID-19 had hit Kirkland [Washington], we immediately brought our leadership team together to say ‘That’s two states up. How do we get ready for this migrating down here?’” Linde notes. “By January 27th, we had restricted outside visitation for travelers who had travelled out of the country to those tier 3 countries. And then progressively, through the month of February and by mid-March, we started sheltering in place.”

When California Governor Gavin Newsom shut down all but essential businesses, Linde says, “we looked at St. Paul’s Towers as though it were itself a village: What are the businesses that operate within this village, which of those are essential, and how do we carry those out safely?” She explains that initially care giving and meals were the essential businesses for St. Paul’s. With in-person dining not permitted, “we said, how do we do takeout at St. Paul’s Towers?” The team wrote guidelines for how to do safe takeout. “We set up two separate takeout staging areas in our community and we designated times for people to come at meals so we wouldn’t have crowding.”

From a system-wide perspective, Covia established a COVID-19 task force that met daily initially and now three times a week. Ron Schaefer, Covia’s Chief Operating Officer, who heads up the task force, explains that its role is to “keep in touch with the health directives that are coming from different locations and provides advisories to our communities to help the Executive Directors make sure that nothing gets by them that they need to know.” The taskforce also provides guidance around the evolving best practices for infection control and testing and ensures that each location has the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) needed.

Providing Connection

Even with visiting restrictions in place, prospective residents can connect with a community during this time.

“If you are interested in a particular community, we encourage you to reach out and talk to people at that community,” says Mary McMullin, Chief Strategy and Advancement Officer. Community marketing teams are all ready to do a virtual tour that meets your needs, including walking you through the community, creating a special video with your specific interests in mind, and video conferencing.

The marketing team can also connect you “with residents who are living at the community and you can talk to them,” McMullin highlights. Another great option is the community Facebook pages, which post updates and photos about what is going on. They can provide great insight into what events are taking place as well as what precautions the community is taking.

All communities have embraced new ways to stay connected, adapting programming so that residents have a full schedule of activities. Linde shares that St. Paul’s Towers is “doing a lot of activities through the in-house television, like exercises and cooking classes where they deliver ingredients to apartments and residents can follow along on the in-house channel or on Zoom.” The St. Paul’s Towers chaplain has also transitioned her programming to Zoom for book discussions and more. “We do a happy hour on Zoom every Tuesday night,” Linde notes. “It’s such a gift of connection.” St. Paul’s Towers has also created an ice cream truck complete with a signature jingle that delivers ice cream and treats to residents in their apartments. Linde says “If the residents ask for it, we are really trying to find a way to do it.”

Covia also offers connection programs that are accessible to everyone, utilized by residents in Covia communities as well as the wider public. Well Connected provides a full catalog of sessions that are available over the phone or online and are completely free. Sessions cover everything from arts and yoga to armchair travel and wellness. The current catalog of sessions is available here. For connecting one-on-one, Social Call matches older adult participants with volunteers for weekly meetings over the phone. Participants enjoy talking with others from the comfort of their home and these weekly meetings go a long way toward fostering the connections that social distancing has proven are a crucial part of wellness.

Although the challenges of responding to COVID-19 are real, Covia is still finding new and positive ways to make healthy communities, build connections, and stay engaged.

Over a decade ago, long before COVID-19 would drastically alter our world, Covia developed a resource to promote social engagement among older adults and combat loneliness and social isolation. That program, Well Connected, is now a nationwide social connection and lifelong learning program that is free and open to all older adults — not just Covia residents or its affiliates.

“The program was initially designed for low-income, extremely isolated, frail older adults who needed more engagement,” says Tracy Powell, Covia’s Vice President of Community Services. “It was a lovely but small support system rooted in engagement and volunteerism,” she notes, initially offering 10 free one-hour classes per week. Over the last few years, the programming has grown “in sophistication and audience.” Participants, who currently come from 46 states, can now choose from over 80 classes and groups that are offered every single week. The programs vary from support groups to topical discussions to interactive courses, all available by phone or online.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Well Connected participation has skyrocketed. Prior to the social distancing and quarantining requirements brought about by the crisis, Well Connected had about 2,000 participants. Then, in the first two weeks of April alone, 200 new participants joined — a 10 percent increase in just two weeks after 10 years of operation. Since the onset of COVID-19, Well Connected has had a total of 685 new participants. Now staff are getting calls from other senior living operators interested in enrolling their residents.

“There has been a huge increase in terms of enrollment and interest,” Powell says. “There have been 50 to 75 organizations so far just through the end of May that have contacted us and asked if they can join and find out more about what’s involved in virtual programming.”

Social Call, another Covia Community Services program, matches individuals for one-on-one social connections. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, many of these friendly visits were conducted in person based on shared interests and geographic proximity. Now, Social Call happens entirely by phone, lifting the geographic limitations and significantly expanding the possibilities for connections based on interests and compatibility — especially since the program has seen a huge increase in volunteers as well as participants.

Another project that Covia has spearheaded in response to COVID-19 is “Enduring Inspiration,” a worldwide call for art made by older adults. The program was developed in partnership with Ruth’s Table, an arts center named in honor of the internationally-known artist Ruth Asawa that is a part of Covia’s Bethany Center affordable housing community in San Francisco.

Seniors around the world are encouraged to make any kind of art and send it in — a recipe, a collage, a painting, a drawing, or anything else that can be easily mailed — for a juried exhibit that will be held at the freestanding gallery space at Bethany Center once it is safe to do so. Covia is also developing art packets and embroidery kits to send out to seniors in their communities so they can create their own art.

“At the heart of it, this is all very central to our mission as an organization: building community wherever people are,” says Ron Schaefer, Covia’s Chief Operating Officer. “These programs help bring people together and create connections.”

*This article was originally published in the Summer 2020 edition of Community Matters