Skilled Nursing News reported the importance and emergence of social media for nursing home residents during the pandemic. When Jonah Blumenthal, co-founder of TypoDuctions, first started pitching nursing home operators on the potential benefits of using social media, the response was decidedly skeptical.
“Five years ago, people thought we were nuts — why in the world would a nursing home want social media?” Blumenthal told SNN recently.
Engaging with potential customers over platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram has amounted to table stakes for businesses across all sectors for more than a decade now, and it’s common among other settings in the senior housing and care continuum. Of all the strategies that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has implemented to stem the tide of COVID-19, its early decision to bar nursing home visits by all but the most essential staff has had the biggest emotional toll.
Independent and assisted living operators, for instance, look to attract the attention of the proverbial adult daughter — who’s been tasked with finding a place for Mom or Dad to continue a normal lifestyle with some supports — with pictures and videos of activities, luxury amenities, and happy seniors on exciting day trips.
But for most nursing home operators, the perceived risk has long outweighed the rewards. With most people choosing a post-acute or long-term care center based on proximity to family and word-of-mouth recommendations, why invest the time and money in developing a social media presence for what amounts to a need-based business? Why invite the potential for negative reviews or comments in a space that has always been hyper-conscious about its portrayal in the media?
Then the COVID-19 outbreak of 2020 provided the answers to those questions.
After the federal government banned all non-essential visits to nursing homes, operators have rapidly built up their social media presences almost overnight, relying on their websites, Facebook, and even newer platforms such as TikTok to allay the fears of residents’ families — and try to prove to the world that life is continuing amid a global pandemic.
“When you see your family member doing well, smiling and being taken care of, it really puts the families at ease,” Shalom Friedland, vice president of operations at the Lakewood, N.J.-based Paramount Care Centers, told SNN.
For weeks now, local news outlets have reported on the frustration that family members of nursing home residents feel, with bittersweet stories of conversations through closed windows and birthdays celebrated over Skype filling newspapers and evening news lineups across the country.
That feeling goes both ways: Residents of post-acute and long-term care facilities, some of whom have dementia and other conditions that prevent them from fully grasping the gravity of the situation, rely on regular visits for their mental health and wellbeing.
“They’re missing that connection with their families and friends,” Izzy Weinberg, managing member of the Rockville Centre, N.Y.-based Champion Care, said.
Over the last month, TypoDuctions has seen its volume of social media posts on behalf of clients double, according to Blumenthal. Many of the company’s customers have compiled lists of family members’ e-mail addresses and phone numbers — information facilities don’t normally collect — in order to send out coordinated blasts letting them know to follow the individual buildings’ pages on Facebook and elsewhere.
“This way they still have that feeling of connection — I’m able to see that life is going as normally as possible,” Blumenthal said. “I’m still seeing pictures of the loved ones. Even if it’s socially distant bingo or whatever’s going on, we’re seeing that they’re still being taken care of constantly, and that’s a huge comfort to the families.”
Champion Care, which operates skilled nursing facilities across the Midwest, had used Facebook at most once every week prior to the start of the crisis, Weinberg said — typically to inform the community about significant events.
That has accelerated to every day, with Champion highlighting the range of socially distant activities that building staff have implemented across the company. Residents have turned hallways into bowling alleys, each taking turns to try to knock down the pins, and also played bingo while staying six feet apart.
Despite the visitation bans, Weinberg said engagement with residents, at least virtually, has never been higher.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, an individual facility’s page would garner maybe 50 to 100 views per week, Weinberg estimated; for comparison, he shared a recent Facebook screenshot indicating 1,300 views and 538 engagements over a seven-day period.
“We see there’s more connections with children and their parents, or grandchildren with their grandparents, on Facebook due to all the posting and all the media that we’re putting out,” he said.
While Weinberg and Champion Care have come to embrace the two-way street of Facebook — building leaders can post, families can respond and share with their extended networks — it’s only one of the options in operators’ toolkits.
Paramount Care Centers routinely sends e-mails to families of residents, and created text-messaging groups to provide updates as quickly as possible to the widest net of people, according to Friedland.
The company has also begun hosting conference calls with the family members of residents at each facility at a minimum of twice a week, attracting nearly 200 people — a considerable uptick from previous efforts.
“People are very worried, very understandably, and people are using the tools that we’re putting out there,” Friedland said.
Having centralized places for information not only helps to put families at ease; it also eases the strain on nursing home administrators and other leaders who find themselves swamped amid the constant battle against COVID-19.
“They’re inundated right now, and there’s a sense of relief from them, seeing what’s going on through social media,” Blumenthal said.
And just as leaders have predicted that the emergency waivers around telehealth and transfers could become permanent once the crisis abates, the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 could mark a generational shift in the way post-acute and long-term care facilities see social media — and interacting with the public in general.
At least for Paramount Care, the pivot to Facebook will likely be permanent, according to Weinberg. After all, even once the peak of the coronavirus has passed, families will still need ways to connect with their loved ones in nursing homes in faraway towns, states, and even countries.
“There is a good thing that is coming out,” he said. “There is that connection, where families are connecting with their family members in the nursing homes a little more than they used to.”