Occupational Therapy Students Continue Keeping Nursing Home Patients Happy

April 16, 2020
By: Hana Lasell

When Emma Caneira ‘20 started her job as a part-time activities assistant at Christopher House Skilled Nursing Center in the fall, she never expected to be working in the middle of a global health crisis come spring. The senior occupational therapy major assists in developing and leading group activities with residents at Christopher House, including bowling, trivia games, Bingo (their favorite), and arts and crafts.

When COVID-19 began making its way into Massachusetts this spring, like many essential workers, Caneira was faced with a lot of uncertainty once the pandemic began impacting her workplace.

“When the coronavirus first became a major problem, I felt very anxious to come to work,” she says. “I was nervous that I could possibly be a carrier and be exposing my residents to the virus. I was also nervous that I could bring the virus home to my family.”

Caneira says that protective measures were quickly put in place at Christopher House, including the provision of personal protective equipment for staff and residents, strict screening and hand-sanitizing measures, regular temperature checks for staff entering the facility, and social distancing.

“We now are only able to run an activity in the residents’ hallways, having them all six feet apart,” says Caneira, who is used to leading activities in a dedicated space with both large and small groups of residents.

Caneira says that it’s difficult to witness the impact COVID-19 isolation is having on some of the residents living at Christopher House.

“The most challenging group of residents to see being affected by the COVID-19 precautions are the residents in the dementia unit. They are quickly agitated because they miss their family members, but unfortunately do not understand why the family members can no longer visit,” she says.

Senior occupational therapy major Allison Eckstrom ‘20, who works as an activity aide at the West Side House in Worcester, echoes many of the same concerns.

“Working in the healthcare industry during this global pandemic is stressful and overwhelming,” she says. “Some of the unique challenges I have faced in terms of the residents I am supporting include helping them become acquainted to a new room after a room change—they moved some residents to create COVID rooms in the event a resident test positive for COVID-19—and having to say no to one-on-one activities with items that cannot be easily sanitized, such as playing Jenga and UNO.”

For Eckstrom, a silver lining of working in healthcare right now is the real-life crisis management training.

“This experience has helped demonstrate to me what a healthcare facility does when responding to a pandemic or catastrophic health crisis,” she says. “I’m being familiarized with the steps that a nursing home must take when presented with a situation like this one. So, if or when I work in a healthcare facility, I will know what to expect or how to help the staff and patients I work with in a time of crisis.”

Despite the many fears and challenges they are facing, both women agree that they play an important role as essential workers during this crisis, and continue to derive satisfaction from their work.

“Currently, I see how doing activities are beneficial to my residents and seeing them happy makes me happy,” says Caneira. “Working with these residents really does give so much meaning to the work I am doing, and I hope I can make the slightest difference to their day during a time of confusion and uncertainty.”

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