Spreading Joy (Not Germs): Creating Community During the COVID-19 Crisis

It’s been three months since our community began shelter-in-place procedures, as Justine Vogel, CEO of the RiverWoods Group, implemented policies that, while restrictive, were done so with the single, vital objective: keeping our residents and staff safe.

Since that time, we have not had any presence of the virus on any of our three Exeter campuses. Quoted in an article by the New Hampshire Union Leader in May, Justine said: “Our process went from disbelief to how do we keep that from happening here, to how do we contain it when it comes…”

In addition to the initial closures of our dining and fitness rooms, group classes and events, and diligent daily cleaning of our common spaces, many other changes were implemented in March and April for the protection of our residents (you can read in more detail or watch Justine’s videos here) there were other changes as well.

It was then our Creating Virtual Community Task Force was developed, a collaborative group of community life leaders representing all of the RiverWoods Group communities – RiverWoods Exeter, RiverWoods Durham, and Birch Hill – who began meeting via zoom on a weekly basis to share and discuss ways to keep the residents connected during the crisis.

“We know that the physical safety of our residents is important,” said Tracy Jeffers, Senior Director of Community Life at RiverWoods Exeter. “But we also know their emotional health is vital at a time like this. We want our residents to feel loved and supported by the staff, but we also want them to have a little bit of fun in every day.”

Thus began a weekly program of activities, efforts, and engagements planned by the staff, all intended to boost the spirits and encourage safe connection among residents. During the colder weeks of late spring, door to door deliveries included everything from ice cream, potted pansies, to a Thirsty Thursday cocktail cart roaming the hallways.

Mailboxes were stuffed with custom fortune cookies and hearts. Chalk was delivered to the front desks and various campuses were “bombed” with sidewalk art to encourage and entertain. The Community  Life Team worked with local restaurants to offer take out orders that were brought back to each campus on a rotating basis. Our Country Stores were converted from small boutique shops with a few sundries to well-stocked bodegas stuffed with shelf-stable and fresh goods that residents could purchase and use in their own homes. Executive Director Deb Riddell found a unique way to safely visit each campus and engage with the residents….from inside a T-Rex costume.

The slogan “Spread Joy (Not Germs)” became both our mission and our mantra.

As the weather warms, more outside activities have been planned and encouraged.  Our vast network of hiking trails have never been so well used, and a staircase allowing ease-of-access to the new Quarry Trail was installed. Independent Living residents enjoyed Park and Chat events, allowing for scheduled visits with a carload of family from a safe distance of 6’ away. Fitness classes resumed out-of-doors, in smaller groups. The fresh produce that will soon be harvested from the raised garden beds across all three campuses is sure to be abundant this year, more than ever before.

Our staff has taken every opportunity to celebrate…anything. From Cinco de Mayo costumes and themed treats to May the 4th (Be With You) costume contests, DIY Mimosa kits for Mother’s Day, a festive week of themes for Spirit Week, and a more thoughtful time of remembrance and poppies for Memorial Day.

The situation has been challenging, requiring flexibility and adaptability on the part of both residents and staff, but here at RiverWoods Exeter, our residents remain safe and healthy, enjoying the beautiful New England spring, and looking forward to the day when spreading joy includes hugs and handshakes once again.