June 9, 2020
Alexa, Let’s Innovate – Art therapy and counseling students bring connection during COVID-19
Compassion and connection. These are two of the hallmarks of good care. And when it comes to the Lifestyle Engagement team at Sycamore Living, a senior wellness community in East Hanover, New Jersey, providing quality care is a priority, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. No surprise then, that Caldwell University students and faculty have been playing an integral part in the work there, using new and exciting technology to accomplish their goals.
Art therapist Maria Lupo is an alumna of the master’s in clinical mental health counseling with a specialization in art therapy program and she is an adjunct faculty member in the School of Psychology and Counseling. Lupo is also the director of lifestyle engagement at Sycamore Living who supervised Caldwell graduate students Amanda Mascolo and Marisa Juliano as Lifestyle Engagement associates during the spring semester. These women are on the cutting edge of new technology that is connecting the elderly with loved ones and staff members in a unique climate.
The idea of working in a facility that houses COVID-19 patients may seem intimidating to some. Lupo enters the isolation unit to deliver activity kits and visit as part of her work while Mascolo and Juliano visit it through the use of technology.
Lupo wants people to know that the atmosphere inside the unit may not be what you picture.
“Before I went in, I was concerned as to what it was going to be like,” says Lupo. “Once I walked in, though, it was really about that people-to-people connection. Nursing at its best, care at its best. Yes, it’s serious and they’ve come through a lot. But people are still people.”
“It’s not as scary as it would seem to the public,” she adds.
It is that desire for connection that has driven the team to find innovative ways to allow seniors to interact with staff as well as their friends and family. Each of their rooms is equipped with an Alexa Echo Show, a device that allows both audio and visual communication. Each patient is assigned a unique Alexa account that includes a username and password. Associates contact the patient’s family when they arrive and send them a thorough instruction sheet, video, and any additional technical support they need. Once connected, the family can simply call in to virtually visit their loved one, without the patient having to pick up a phone or operate any technology on their end.
Families have described this service as a “life saver.” Many have not seen their family member in weeks while they are treated for COVID in the hospital. Once they arrive at Sycamore for continued recovery, there is finally a renewed connection with home.
“Technology can be a burden or a lifesaver, and I feel like in this situation, technology is really a life saver,” Lupo says. “It is really creating that human connection.”
Juliano received her master’s in mental health counseling with art therapy specialization May 17. “I never imagined being an essential worker during a global pandemic…but being able to be there for the residents and patients any way that we can during all of this, knowing that they felt safer, makes us feel better.”
She has seen her backgrounds in counseling theory and technique and art therapy come together. “I have heard stories about fear, loss, death, but also of hope and prayer for a better world after this. I keep the families and patients in my thoughts each day.”
Lupo recalls Mother’s Day and the unique role that technology played in the day. Prior to the holiday, the team contacted families to see how they would like to celebrate their moms. Families e-mailed artwork that grandchildren had made, pictures of family, or whatever else they wanted to share. Lupo came in and printed everything that had been sent in on the morning of Mother’s Day and put the materials into envelopes with cards from the staff. These special care packages were delivered to patients, and families were able to video in to spend some time with their loved one. Paired with a special meal from the facility’s culinary department, the day was truly special.
Another initiative that has helped keep spirits high is the creation of personal activity kits. The team fills these kits with coloring sheets, puzzles, a journal book with inspirational words, as well as writing and art materials. They are delivered into the unit, and then the associates use the technology of Alexa to virtually visit with each patient. They help them explore the activities, and sometimes, they just offer conversation. Lupo knows that some days, the activities are a welcome stimulation, and other times, the patient may just need a listening ear.
“Even as an art therapist, you give the patient or resident what they need,” Lupo says. “Checking in with them, giving them a one-to-one room visit, listening, and having that human connection conversation.”
Lupo says that patients often want to talk about everyday life. They want to share memories or hear about the staff member’s pets. They want to hear what it is like to go to the grocery store during the pandemic. Simple conversations are a craving that the Lifestyle Engagement staff can satisfy.
Even outside of the COVID unit, residents are seeing the effects of a team who cares to connect with them as they face the same isolation that households across the country do. One such resident is a Caldwell University alumni, Peggy Lavery Leo ’64. She shared about how the Lifestyle team takes the time to bring residents outside to enjoy warm weather, and engages in conversation with the residents. Leo enjoyed the opportunity to reminisce about her memories from her time at Caldwell, when the school was composed of all women, and there were just 114 students in her graduating class. She doesn’t take the challenges the Sycamore staff face for granted.
“With the difference in all of our ages and likes and dislikes, they are making it work,” she says. “If things are all planned and no one is interested in doing that, they’ll sit and talk with the residents. This is especially important since we cannot leave the faculty, nor can we have visitors.”
When you hear about the work being done at Sycamore Living, technology certainly stands out. But flowing under that innovation is a steady current of compassion. Each decision comes out of a desire from the staff to connect with residents and to allow them to flourish in their home.
“The most rewarding aspect of my work is to be able to provide the residents with support,” says Mascolo who is pursuing her master’s in mental health counseling. “They are often faced with challenges and are accustomed to hearing that they can’t. My time and experience from Caldwell’s academic program has prepared me to be patient, empathetic and understanding of this population especially during this time.”
Lupo sees innovation remaining as a standard even after COVID-19 has passed.
“We want to change up what senior living means,” Lupo says, “engaging the mind, bringing purposeful, meaningful activities to seniors.”
Whether that means planting an herb garden or exercising on a normal day, or adjusting to the temporary normal of a pandemic with Alexa-assisted family visits, the team at Sycamore Living is ensuring that for the seniors in their care, every day has purpose.
-Nicole Burrell ‘09