I began working at a skilled nursing facility, Friendship Village, inDannielle Hellios Portrait May of 2017. I had just finished my MSW program at Loyola University Chicago and was eager to join the healthcare field as a social worker driven by passion. Just like any other healthcare professional, I had no idea what lie ahead in a few short years. The start of the Covid-19 Pandemic brought a layer of fear not only to the staff but to the residents of this nursing home as well. No, we weren’t working on the front lines at the hospital dealing with covid-19 patients at every turn. We were fighting a different battle. We had some of the most vulnerable members of our community in a residential care facility, living in close quarters; many with cognitive impairment and unable to follow the protocols of wearing a mask, increased hand washing, and social distancing.

"It was our job to keep them safe, to keep covid-19 out of our building and do whatever possible to maintain these safety protocols for these vulnerable residents."

The skilled nursing facility on average had about 180 residents, both long term permanent residents and short-term residents there for rehabilitation. At the time the Pandemic began, I was working on the short-term rehab side, working with residents who were hospitalized and then needing physical, occupational, and speech therapy prior to returning home. Many residents at Friendship Village had strong family involvement. Whether they lived in Independent Living, Assisted Living, or the Long-Term Care section of the community, most residents had family visiting daily or weekly, assisting with errands or medication management. When the lockdown began and families were no longer able to assist, we noticed a significant uptick in the number of residents struggling due to their cognitive impairment. There were many transitions to higher levels of care, again without family support for this move. It was extremely challenging to manage self-determination for the residents, while maintaining their safety, and supporting the families throughout the process from afar.

I found myself communicating over and over to families: “No, you are  not able to come into the nursing home to visit,” and no, “I don’t know when this will change,” and “I understand how it can negatively impact your loved one.” In this setting, Social Workers were the main form of communication to the families and having been on the short-term side where residents come and go frequently, I found this to be draining. Without realizing, I was personally taking this on, as if these regulations were my decision. I started changing my communication with family members stating we were following CDC guidelines, those put out by Illinois Department of Public Health, and CMS. I realized, as a social worker, I can identify and make these small changes that will impact my mood. How are the floor nurses feeling? How are the CNAs, who are working directly with these residents each day feeling? How is management feeling? I realized I wasn’t in this alone. I began an initiative that I titled “Wellness Wednesday.” I highlighted to all staff at the nursing home the importance of taking care of themselves during this pandemic. I partnered with a Nurse Manager, utilizing the various disciplines in our setting and hung-up inspirational quotes around the building, both for staff and residents.

Together, we collaborated on a bulletin board for the breakroom in which we titled, “Take What You Need.” It held small pieces of paper under categories such as Laughter, Hope, Confidence, Positivity and Patience. I also would send out weekly emails (and hang up in the breakroom) to the management team on Wellness Wednesday with various tips and self-care strategies including breathing exercises, mental wellness action plans, covid fatigue and how to battle it, burnout, etc. I partnered with our Chaplain and asked her to write a piece on Holiday traditions, and how they might look different than they used to. I shared with my team the Employee Assistance Program, and how they could use this benefit for free counselling sessions to process the challenges we were facing every day.

The amount of positive response I heard from my team regarding this initiative was overwhelming. I had staff in every department from dining, maintenance, laundry, up to administration coming to me and thanking me for my Wellness Wednesdays. They reported to me they had something to look forward to every week, they came to my office asking for more resources and what else they could be doing throughout the day to lessen their stress levels. I saw such a positive response from the team during this initiative, it truly reminded me the importance of our ethical obligation as social workers to our colleagues.

"During the Pandemic, everyone experienced a loss in one way or another; whether it was unfortunately a loved one, usual practices in the workplace, or ‘normal life.’ I realized that as I was making changes on my own to try and handle the pandemic, it was my ethical, moral, and professional obligation to share this with my colleagues."

A time when everyone felt lost and unsure of what was to come, we could handle each day a little easier, have each day be a little brighter, knowing that we were in this together. I take pride in having created a safe place for employees to vent, share frustration, and find peace during a time that no one will ever forget.