Menorah Manor remains calm in center of COVID-19 storm

This article was written by Bob Fryer and originally published in the Jewish Press on April 27, 2020.

Anita Sher, 93, is unaware of the coronavirus pandemic that has turned the world upside down.

“Sometimes when you do not have the capability to worry, you are a happy person,” Craig Sher said of his mom.

Since last June, Anita has been a resident of Menorah Manor, a Jewish community sponsored facility in St. Petersburg that offers care for some of the most frail and vulnerable Tampa Bay area residents.

The fact his mom is unaware does not stop her family from worry, Sher says. “Everybody, regardless of age, is being stressed. Kids are missing friends at school and adults miss seeing coworkers at work. But for the very elderly, you hold your breath when you read and hear about all the horrible things going on in (other) nursing homes.”

As of press time, Menorah Manor has not been hit by the virus and Dr. David LeVine, chief medical officer at Menorah Manor, is striving to keep it that way. He, too, has a mom, Marilyn, 90, receiving care there.

LeVine says Marilyn, a resident of the Toby Weinman Assisted Living Residence, is well aware of the virus and is worried primarily about family members who can no longer visit in-person. “She seems to be worrying more about our safety than hers. … I try not to use my privileges as a doctor here to visit my mother, but the other day I ran into her in the hallway when I was there to see someone else. Like everyone else, we kept a safe distance – no hugs or kisses.”

Like so many others with relatives there, he said, “I do FaceTime with her. … I try to give her things to do, but she says she is already so busy – though I am not sure what she is busy with.”

LeVine said Marilyn’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren have also FaceTimed with her or written letters. Recently, a great-granddaughter in Miami played the violin for her online.

“She is distressed she is not going to her hairdresser,” he said, sounding grateful that she did not have larger concerns to worry about.

Of all the residents at the facility, he said, “They are as safe as they can be at Menorah Manor. As hard as it can be, we will prevail.”

Sher agrees, calling Menorah Manor a community treasure that his wife’s parents, Irwin and Sonya Miller, were instrumental in getting built.

Before the virus, Sher said his family and his brother’s family would visit Anita several times a week. Now, they can only do that online.

“The last time we saw her in person was March 7,” he said, when they had a birthday party for her in a community room at the nursing home. When Menorah Manor went on lockdown on March 12, no visitors were allowed inside and gatherings for dinners or social events were banned.

Anita has a private caregiver who goes through the same screening as the Menorah Manor staff to get into the building and follows the same rules as staff. Although Anita is among the general nursing home population, “She needs quite a bit of help,” Sher said, “It’s hard. She is not real mobile but fortunately she is kind of content. It is stressful for us but she is in a good place physically and mentally.”

As a gesture of appreciation, Sher said his family bought lunch for all the staff recently.

Menorah Manor, with a staff of about 200, operates the Marion and Bernard L. Samson Nursing Center, a facility with 180 beds, and the Toby Weinman Assisted Living Residence that houses 24 residents. Until the virus hit it also operated the Irv Weissman Adult Day Center, serving about 15 seniors daily, but that is closed until the virus subsides.

Knowing family members are not coming for visits, staffers throughout facilities are working harder than ever to bond with the residents.

“Our staff morale is amazingly positive. We’re having regular meetings with staff to maintain good lines of communication. Our employees are coming to work and are even putting a smile on their faces,” said CEO Rob Goldstein. “We’ve even figured out a way to offer our staff the opportunity to buy small quantities of difficult-to-find household items such as toilet paper, paper towels, bleach and spray disinfectant, at our cost. They really appreciate that.”

Life inside

When outside visitors were banned, residents could no longer congregate for social or religious programs and meals could either be served in rooms or in limited groups.

This soon sprouted new ways to socialize, such as hallway bingo where residents sit in front of their rooms to play. Other activities include sunning on the patio or visits to garden spots around the facilities. The residents also engage in singing songs and watching movies in small groups. Exercise classes and trivia games are live-streamed to resident rooms, and activity packets with crossword puzzles and coloring pages are provided weekly.

“The social services department has found ways to create joy and a sense of togetherness during these challenging times,” says Chief Development & Community Relations Officer Judy Ludin. “It is not unusual for a one-on-one visit to turn into an impromptu dance party, or for a small group of residents near the nurses’ station to participate in a spontaneous sing-a-long.”

Rabbi Aaron Lever, director of spiritual care, has offered a variety of programs. Friday night and Saturday morning services, meditation groups, storytelling podcasts, sing-a-longs, and healing services are also live-streamed to residents’ rooms. Those watching Shabbat services from their rooms are invited to participate virtually.

“Everyone was given their own prayer books, so I called out the page numbers and invited people to read with me in English,” Rabbi Lever said. “It was a way of involving them to participate and showing them that we can still be together and have a service.”

During Passover, the Seders and services were live-streamed to all televisions on campus. As there are Christians in residence as well, Easter services were also broadcast.

Memory care unit

Within the nursing center is the Bresler Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders Program, where residents have different degrees of awareness about life outside. Karen Fratianni, program director, says when staff members began wearing masks, a few asked why, but were accepting of the explanation that it is flu season and the staff does not want anyone to get flu germs.

Fratianni said the ideal for these residents would be frequent visits from family members. Nevertheless, even with no one allowed inside, most are faring well so far. One woman who used to remain in her room a lot and get daily visits from her husband is now participating in more activities.

Quarantine unit

On April 2, a new 13-bed quarantine unit was added at Menorah Manor’s nursing center to serve as a buffer between new arrivals and its general population.

The nursing home gets about five new patients per week who are sent there from local hospitals. To prevent those patients from infecting others, LeVine said, “New arrivals are kept under observation for up to two weeks.”

Unless they were tested at a hospital before being sent to the nursing home, all new admissions and readmissions get tested. Other residents and staff are tested if they are showing signs and symptoms consistent with the virus.

To date Menorah Manor has not taken on any patients known to have the virus. “If we get to a point where we have to take on active COVID-19 patients, we will keep them in [another] separate unit,” LeVine said.