How has senior living in the pandemic been for a community like Abbotswood at Stonehenge? We sat down for an interview with Executive Director David Sexton to discuss the ongoing challenges.
Senior Living in the Pandemic
“The Murrays are the kind of people you want to have at your side when you face a challenge…I don’t know what we would’ve done [during COVID-19] without them.”
– David Sexton, Executive Director, Abbotswood at Stonehenge
Tell me about your work at Abbotswood at Stonehenge
I’m the Executive Director at Abbotswood. We provide 24/7 care for our residents, and my job is to oversee each department director to ensure we’re delivering the best care possible every day. I’ve been here since 2007 in a variety of roles. I started out in sales, then moved into a resident relations role before stepping into the executive director position. I’ve worked at Abbotswood as well as our sister location down the street, Magnolia Glen. It’s a rewarding job!
This year must have been incredibly challenging for you and your team, managing a senior living community while also facing the COVID-19 pandemic.
Absolutely. The biggest challenge with COVID-19 was the unknown element of the virus. Initially, there was so much fear that went along with it. Residents, families, community partners – even my own fears. It was very difficult.
The other challenging aspect of the pandemic was that our community is set up a bit differently than most senior living communities. We don’t separate our residents depending on their living situation. Our fully independent residents, those requiring assisted living services and those dealing with memory challenges all live among one another. This creates a beautiful and more inclusive community, but it also means that our staff are trying to manage a variety of needs – behaviors, awareness, and understanding – from a range of residents within the same building.
This was a huge challenge at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. There was so much uncertainty and fear associated with it and we felt unsure of how best to protect our residents and partners. The amount of information coming out every day was overwhelming, and there was a sense of dread about how to prevent it from entering and spreading through the community. Thanks to time and experience, we now have much more information, and we have been able to use that knowledge to more thoughtfully and effectively care for our community.
Why did you select Aware Senior Care to become your preferred home health care partner at Abbotswood?
Prior to the onset of the pandemic, after a careful re-evaluation of our residents’ care needs, we had made the decision to find a new partner agency who could better meet those needs. Unfortunately, the timing was terrible. Neither Abbotswood nor our previous partner knew what we were about to face with COVID-19, and it was a delicate balance to identify and then onboard a new agency while also managing one of the most difficult health crises we’ve faced at the community.
We started our due diligence and researched several agencies before reaching out to Aware Senior Care. Tim and Gina impressed me right away with the kind of people they are. They’re just good people – individuals with character and integrity. Over the course of my career, I’ve learned that if you can deal with good people, you want to do that. It doesn’t mean you’ll always agree on everything, but you can talk through issues, face them together, and work to solve the problems as a team. I was excited about the opportunity to work with people like that. That’s what I saw right away in the Murrays.
What made Aware Senior Care stand out to you?
We’re a small, intimate community here. We have 120 apartments with 130 residents. We love the flexibility that a small community provides, and sometimes, we do things a bit differently because it feels like the right thing to do, even if it’s not the most efficient or convenient. It’s how we’d want people to do things for us if we were living here. The Murrays are like that too. They’re good business people, but like I mentioned, they’re also just good people. They notice details and pay attention to the little things. The things they value in their work – compassionate, excellent care – are the things we value too.
I also quickly discovered that their missional approach to their work mirrors our team’s ethos as well. A lot of people here view their work as a mission. It’s something they’re passionate about, and this translates into bringing that added touch to their work every day. It means taking an extra few minutes to talk with a resident. Doing something thoughtful for a resident even if you’ve finished up your shift. We encourage our staff to remember that they’re caring for someone’s mother or father, and we want them to care for them just like they’d care for their own parent or loved one.
The Murrays are also very good at communicating with each other and with me. They’re intentional about the things they do. Good things happen with them because they’re thoughtful in their planning for each client or partner. They’re both smart, creative, problem-solving people who try to make things better when they can. I think they’re also really good about clearly communicating expectations – and proposing solutions. They set the bar high, and they hold themselves to that level of accountability. That kind of transparency and integrity is good.
People appreciate that – I know I certainly have. When we’ve experienced missteps, we’ve talked about it, discussed a plan to change course, and moved forward in action. That’s not something you see with many other home care agencies.
The caregivers at Aware Senior Care bring that same level of thoughtfulness and joy to their work here at Abbotswood. That’s a difficult thing to teach someone; they just have it or they don’t. There’s real value in finding people who do that every day and don’t get tired or worn out. I see that character trait in Tim and Gina and in their caregivers.
I see the extra smiles, the little conversations, the added touches. As an employer, you have to create an environment where employees know those things are valued. The Murrays have done that with their team at Aware Senior Care.
Abbotswood experienced a COVID-19 outbreak earlier this summer with nearly a dozen cases in the community. Can you tell me more about that?
We had our first positive cases here on July 1. It was a difficult day because we found out that we had two positive cases, unrelated to each other, in different areas of the community on the same day. One resident was highly symptomatic; the other resident was mildly symptomatic. Everything changed for us as of July 1.
Globally, there was the threat of COVID-19, but suddenly it was here within our community. Initially, there was some panic from residents and staff. People were very afraid. To Tim and Gina’s credit, when everyone else wanted to run away from the problems we faced, they both ran headfirst into the challenge with us.
They ran toward us and jumped right in, rolling up their sleeves to help us figure out the crisis together. They didn’t have to do that, but that’s just the kind of people they are. I don’t know what we would’ve done without them. At one point, I believe Gina worked nearly 50 straight days here without taking a day off. She was incredible.
Thankfully, we can report right now that we have zero positive COVID-19 cases in our community. We continue to manage the possibility of another outbreak with caution and thoughtfulness in our daily engagement around Abbotswood. It’s not as scary as we thought it once was (though it’s certainly still a huge concern for us), and we’ve grown more confident in our ability to manage it more effectively and safely for both our staff and our residents.
Can you describe Aware Senior Care’s response to the outbreak in your community?
They are a team of problem-solvers. They could’ve said they weren’t ready or weren’t equipped to handle the situation, but they didn’t. It was huge for us to have them on our team. They were forward-thinking and took the time and energy to communicate with us and solve each problem as it arose. They worked to protect their staff but also to protect the residents. They were kind, compassionate.
We had to make a lot of hard decisions together, and even through that process, I saw their passion and heart for what they’re doing. Employees feed off the energy from their leaders. When they see their leadership panicking, they panic. In this case, Aware Senior Care’s caregivers saw Tim and Gina remain calm and positive, and it gave them more confidence to care for their clients in a calm and positive manner.
Some leaders will tell you that they care about people but others will show you the truth behind those words through their actions. That’s what I saw from Tim, Gina, and their team every day. It gave me a lot of faith in them as a new partner. It’s been quite a trial by fire. (And today, we joke about how easy it will be to work together when COVID-19 is behind us!)
What is something you’d say to families or other senior living communities considering working with Aware Senior Care?
Be honest about your needs and expectations. They operate best that way. Tim and Gina aren’t scared by things that may seem difficult or even impossible to their clients. They’re good at what they do, and if they can find a way, they will. They’re going to do everything they can to figure it out with you. They are people of their word. The entire team is full of passion, and they bring honest, compassionate care to their partners and clients.
They’re the kind of people you want to have at your side when you face a challenge, and especially in the case of this year with the COVID-19 pandemic, they have been precisely the right kind of people for us to partner with.