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St. Francis LIFE Center adjusts to serve older population during coronavirus pandemic

Sara Fleetwood celebrated her 100th birthday at the St. Francis LIFE Center on Jan. 15. She reached the century mark on Jan. 11. (Dialog photo/Mike Lang)

Nursing homes and other residences for senior citizens are not the only entities that serve the elderly that have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

The St. Francis LIFE Center, which provides medical, social and other services, has stayed true to its mission despite very limited access to the building on the Wilmington riverfront since mid-March. Amy L. Milligan, the executive director, said the need for care did not suddenly disappear when the country largely shut down three months ago.

The center’s COVID-19 response team had its first meeting on March 11, and the day center closed four days later. That affected the LIFE Center’s 254 clients, about 100 of whom were at the center each day. But those folks still needed medical care and therapy, and a number of them required attention around the clock, which their families couldn’t always provide. The LIFE Center may have been closed, but its services were still critically necessary, Milligan said.

“For us, we knew it would be open. Regardless of what’s happening in the community or in the world, we still had a responsibility to care for these people 24 hours a day. It was really about figuring out how we can do what we currently do with the same quality and keeping people safe. That was the hard part, figuring out how we adjust,” she said.

For some clients, particularly those with varying degrees of dementia, having them home alone was not an option. The LIFE Center worked with families to arrange care. Members of the staff who typically worked in the center were cross-trained to provide care in the home. The employees are also parents and caretakers in their own homes, so some adjustments were mandated.

“It took a while, as it did with everybody. I think we got it to a place where we feel comfortable,” Milligan said.

The center is in contact with its clients on a regular basis, she continued. Social workers check in via phone, nurses and therapists are in touch, and everyone who requires medication is getting it. The center has sent packets of materials to the seniors’ homes to give them activities to keep busy, and Zoom sessions also have been held. There also has been a virtual Bible study.

The LIFE Center has provided videotaped exercise programs as well, and physical and occupational therapists have made home visits. They have made more use of telemedicine and virtual doctors’ visits. The center has been open for the occasional therapy session. Attendance has been limited to one or two seniors, and they are screened. Temperatures are taken before they come in and again while they are there. Most employees are working remotely.

“We bring them in with a mask, and we do our social distancing, and the therapist works with them,” Milligan said.

Just three of the center’s clients have tested positive for coronavirus, she said. The LIFE Center has done contact tracing for each of them to contain any potential spread as much as possible. Staff members who visit the clients’ homes have always worn the proper personal protective equipment.

Milligan said three factors have helped the LIFE Center with its response to the pandemic. The first is the use of the PACE model. That is a Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly. In addition to medical and rehabilitative care, it also includes nutritional, social-work, social-engagement and spritual aspects. All have been accounted for during the pandemic.

Second, Trinity Health, the parent company has 12 other programs across the country using the same model, so everyone is on the same page and facing the same adjustments. Lastly, plans already existed for snow emergencies and other similar contingencies.

“This is on a much larger scale, but you already have some good stuff in place, Milligan said.

The LIFE Center, which opened in February 2013, is preparing for an eventual reopening, but Milligan said that could be a while. The facility is deep-cleaned once a month with a spray disinfectant, something that predates the coronavirus.

“We always worked at it. When you have people coming in and out from a lot of different households, you want to make sure that, from an infection-control perspective, everything’s good here. We just upped that. We’ll continue to do that when they come back,” she said.

When the doors open depends on a few factors, including guidance from the governor’s office. A facility that normally serves a large number of people from a vulnerable population is likely to be the last left staying at home. Milligan said a late summer reopening is possible, but when that happens there won’t be 100 clients attending.

The LIFE Center also will need to make adjustments for transportation, as a van designed to carry 12 passengers won’t hold anywhere near that many people. However, the center will make certain that its participants get where they need to be, such as doctor’s appointments.

Milligan said some people have discovered while working from home is that their older loved ones need more care than they realize. The center is still enrolling new clients. Interested participants should call (302) 660-3351.​