Mount Olivet recreation director: ‘Staff spread out on the sidewalk and did the chicken dance’

The Southwest Journal is documenting the coronavirus pandemic by recording the personal stories of Minneapolis residents and workers whose daily lives are in a state of flux. As the outbreak evolves, we will be checking in with the participants regularly. Read all of the stories here.

All interviews are edited for length and clarity.

Brenda Howard-Larson, director of therapeutic recreation, Mount Olivet senior home

I’ve got a degree in Christian ministry, a degree in psychology and counseling, and a masters in marriage and family therapy. I got into senior living in 2005 and just fell in love with it. I feel like I can put all of who I am into it. I’ve got a big drive — I live in Hudson, Wisconsin — but this is where I want to be. 

I just love the senior population and helping them understand that there’s such good vital living. So many people feel like this is the end of the road, and it’s not. We have so much fun and so much joy. This has been a hard time to see our people not able to get together and not able to connect. 

The whole therapeutic rec department is about keeping the spirits up of all the residents who are here and keeping them connected even though they can’t be. We’ve tried to fill in the gaps and replace our old programs with new creative ones and ways to keep residents happy and comfortable.

We’ve incorporated hallway bingo, which is really fun. Each resident has a bedside table that lifts and lowers. They’re able to come to the doorway of their room and look out. They can see each other, but they’re 6-feet-plus apart. A staff member goes up and down the hallway, wearing a face shield and mask, calling the bingo and making it really fun. We have to keep face masks on all the time. We can’t take them down ever — not to talk, not for anything.

We’ve also done crafts. We prepare all the different supplies they need — with gloves on — and put them in sealed baggies. We’ve bought so many baggies we should buy stock! And then we hand them out to each of the individual residents. We’ve done some little yarn owls, suncatchers for their windows and Easter bonnets for the ladies and Easter hats for the gentlemen. We instruct them step-by-step and they sit in the doorways in the hall. 

We also create these leisure packets, with news about the day, crosswords or word searches and often a little gift or note. We have a lot of people in the community who are writing cards and drawing pictures and making bookmarks. Those are processed for 24 hours, and then we can hand them out to the residents. They love those bags. 

On Tuesdays we’ve had sidewalk shows. We’ve had a circus family come and this week we’re having a barnyard group bring animals. We had a fellow come with an accordion, and staff spread out on the sidewalk and did the chicken dance while the residents looked out the windows. Some of them were dressed in chicken and cow costumes. We waved at all the cars. It was just a blast. 

We’ve done a lot of one-on-one visits with residents, keeping that social distance, sitting across the room. We keep our masks on and our face shields. We wash hands before we go in to visit anyone and wash hands when we leave. 

We’ve been doing life histories. I have 15 staff on the team and we try to average everyone doing one a day. We have a huge document with questions, and we sit and interview them for a while. And they like that — it gets their mind off of it and they reminisce with us and we get information about them. We’re putting them in a hospitality binder, along with pictures of all the residents. When all these restrictions are lifted, we’ll be able to put residents together — like “Who are the nurses?” or “Who are the sewing people?” We’re getting to know the residents in deeper ways. 

I’m so proud. Mount Olivet jumped on this so early. We were swinging into those precautions weeks before we needed to be, and I think that’s been really, really helpful [in why there have been no more than four cases of COVID-19 at Mount Olivet so far]. We’ve been transparent — we’ve told the residents, we’ve told families. Of course everyone is anxious, but there’s a real sweet sense of calm. The residents feel, correctly, cared for and confident in their care. We’ve been able to keep them busy even though they’re sequestered or alone.

We do tons of social media visits. We have an iPad for every floor. We do Zoom, FaceTime and Skype. Families can call in and request visits. The load has been pretty heavy, but we’ve been able to handle it so far. 

I think it’s easy when people are isolated to fall into modes of depression or loneliness. The core of it all, when you’re depressed, is feeling a sense of no-belonging. We still want them to know we’re all in this together. Your psyche is so much part of your health and hope. It’s really important to keep minds busy and keep them connected in one way or another — even though we can’t be.

Most of our residents are certainly alone and many came from living alone. Without being able to connect with their loved ones or have anyone visit, they definitely might sense they’re alone. But really they’re not. It’s pretty unique how we can remain creatively connected. 

I have a mother who is 83, and I can’t imagine if she was here and I was unable to be here. That brings it home for me. We feel like they’re all family. 

My mother lives in Northfield and is living on her own, and she’s been a good girl. She hasn’t left her house and has been using services and other friends to drop off any grocery items she needs. She knits and reads and watches birds. It’s just hard not to be able to see one another.


 You can read all of the stories here.