COVID-19 didn’t lead Linda Milholland to retire from Windsor Place of Iola after 16 years, but it sure made the last couple of years a challenge.
She retired at the end of the year as the senior living facility’s administrator, as did her husband, Gerry, the facility’s maintenance director.
That had been the plan for two years, before COVID hit.
And though COVID brought a huge adjustment in the operation of nursing homes and assisted care facilities, the Milhollands adapted, giving credit to those who helped along the way.
LONG-TERM care has changed in recent years.
It’s become more centered on meeting all of the needs of a resident, not just taking care of their health and clinical needs.
Residents, for the most part, now dictate what happens at a facility, Linda said.
“Residents told us what they wanted to eat, how they wanted to eat and when they wanted to eat,” she said.
Before COVID, they could come and go from the facility. They would go shopping or watch performances at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center. They frequently gathered together for games, puzzles, music and socialization.
COVID set back that progress.
“It had gotten away from that traditional nursing home model, so now we’re back to that,” Linda said.
“The ideal is to get back to how we were, and have it be more resident-centered.”
There’s one very important key to making that happen, she said.
The solution: “Get vaccinated.”
“It’s not just for you. It changes the quality of life for our residents and the people in our facility,” Linda said. “Getting vaccinated would be a great thing to do.”
THEY came to Iola from Beloit, where she had been an administrator from a nursing home there.
At that time, Windsor Place had seen quite a bit of transition through its administration. But she saw a lot of positives, especially in the way employees were treated.
“When I first came in, it was about getting the staffing to settle down somewhat. They needed strong leadership,” she said.
A former human resources director, Raymond Frost, served as her mentor. He made the transition much easier, Linda said.
“It was an adjustment for a couple of years.”
Good things happened.
Windsor Place was recognized as a 5-star facility by Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which is based on resident surveys, annual inspections and visits.
For several years, the facility offered a preschool on site, a unique way to involve the community and provide socialization between some of Allen County’s oldest and youngest residents.
That effort began at the urging of Craig Neuenswander, former USD 257 superintendent and now deputy commissioner of the Kansas State Department of Education.
“He was very supportive. He knew it would be a good fit,” Linda said.
The program ended a few years ago as the district shifted to a different preschool model and began to prepare for a new elementary school building.
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, Linda said.
“With COVID, it would have been very difficult to have those little kids in the building and still be able to protect our elders,” she said.
GERRY joined the facility about six or seven years ago.
And though he was a wiz at all things maintenance, his socialization skills made him a special asset.
Every day, he made a point to visit each resident, especially the men. He even started a men’s group, and the maintenance crew would meet with them every week.
“They loved it. A lot of the men wouldn’t participate in activities but Gerry was very good at engaging people,” Linda said. “He got some of the residents to open up and talk about their lives in a way that we couldn’t do.”
During COVID, Gerry’s maintenance skills especially came in handy.
Early in the pandemic, safety restrictions kept visitors out of the facility.
That was difficult for residents and families, and all of the staff worried what negative effects might come from such isolation.
The maintenance crew built a partition to create a separate “COVID wing.” As cases occurred, they could be moved to those rooms. Separate staff were dedicated to that area. Laundry was taken outside instead of being carried through the building.
“We did a whole lot of preparation,” Linda said.
To ease the burden for families, Gerry and his crews built a special “chat room” that allowed visitors and residents to talk through a plexiglass partition and intercom system similar to a bank.
At first, visitors weren’t allowed inside the facility at all, so guests stayed outside and residents came to the window from the inside.
Later, visitors could go to a special spot inside the facility, safe from the elements while also still separated from the rest of the building.
“We really hadn’t seen that before but the guys figured it out,” Linda said, giving Gerry credit for coming up with the idea.
Gerry and Ted Hamilton, who is now the maintenance director, designed the box.
“Families not being able to go into the building and see a loved one, and not being able to go to parties and birthdays, that was very rough,” Linda said.
Most families were gracious, she said. The staff understood when family members got upset.
“It was just hard for everybody,” Linda said. “If it was my mom in there, I would have felt the same way.”
AFTER months without a case, COVID hit all at once, in an entire wing so the staff adapted and never used that special wing.
Linda gives credit to Tera Pate, director of nursing who also serves as the infection preventionist, for having a better outcome than other facilities across the nation.
“For a nursing home, I think it went better for us than it could have been,” Linda said.
The illnesses were stressful on staff, residents and families. With a few exceptions, Windsor Place staff were able to help residents recover at the facility.
“They would rather be in their home than at the hospital,” she said.
THE MOST difficult part came later, as staff began to leave.
“That remains very difficult,” she said.
Compounding the problem, students were no longer available to help. Usually, Windsor Place welcomes quite a few high school students.
Pate started teaching CNA classes to ease the burden and attempt to reach more potential staff.
When the vaccine became available, most of the residents and staff received it.
“I’m very proud of my staff. Some of them stepped up big time, especially when COVID was active. The people who volunteered to work in those units were remarkable. They put their lives at risk.”