From fright to forward-thinking: Iowa City nursing home looks toward future beyond COVID-19

The Oaknoll Retirement Residence team reflects on the ways COVID-19 required diligent adaptation to keep residents simultaneously safe and content.


Photo of a 100th birthday celebration in May 2020. Contributed.

Grace Hamilton, News Reporter

When Oaknoll Retirement Center locked down on March 8, 2020, Oaknoll Recreational Therapist Lindsey Reed said she remembered thinking it seemed inevitable that COVID-19 would reach the long-term care facility.

“It was scary to think about the potential of it getting in, and it seemed inevitable that it was going to get in,” Reed said. “I’m very thankful that was not the case.”

Throughout the pandemic, Oaknoll’s staff and resident case count has remained at zero.

Other nursing homes are not as fortunate. As of Tuesday, long-term care facility residents account for 2,221 of Iowa’s 5,657 COVID-19 related deaths. But since vaccines have rolled out into senior living facilities, just one facility in Iowa currently has an outbreak.

After all Oaknoll residents received a COVID-19 vaccine, Reed said the facility started loosening some of its prior resident restrictions. For example, staff members have worn masks and shields whenever they are within six feet of a resident. Now, staff members that are vaccinated aren’t required to wear shields within six feet.

Reed said that during recreation time, the Oaknoll staff tries to keep residents socially distanced and encourages them to wear their masks, although most health center residents decide not to. Oaknoll’s Environmental Services staff sanitizes every nook and cranny of the common areas and halls every few hours, she added.

Taylor Wheeler, Oaknoll’s assistant director of dining services, said Oaknoll is now allowing communal dining, trying to balance regaining a sense of community with resident comfort-levels. To do so, Oaknoll allows a limited number of residents in the dining room at a time and still requires social distancing.

“It’s kind of nice having them out of their rooms and allowing some more residents into the dining room because that’s always a good gathering place for them,” Wheeler said.

Reed added, “A dining room serves as a perfect social outlet for so many residents at all three levels of care.”

No matter the occasion, Oaknoll’s staff did not allow COVID-19 to stop them from planning safe and socially distanced fun for their residents — especially for birthdays.

“We had a resident in assisted living who turned 100 on May 8. We tried to figure out things to do to help her celebrate,” Reed said. “Several Oaknoll staff members ended up creating a flash mob for her, and we did it outside so her family could be off in the distance and watch.”

Retha Haas, Oaknoll’s director of resident relations, said that after resident mental health started to decline and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid released guidelines for allowing visitors, Oaknoll devised inventive ways for residents to see loved ones.

“Residents did a lot of FaceTime and Skyping just so they could still visit, but mental health was a big concern of ours, and we were noticing people were just kind of closing in on themselves a little bit,” Haas said. “It really became a group effort like, let’s start thinking creatively — what can we do to give them as much as we can right now?”

As previously reported by The Daily Iowan, Oaknoll Retirement Residence’s maintenance crew created a chatterbox contraption — a life-sized plexiglass structure — so residents could see their families.

On March 12, the Iowa Department of Public Health announced updated guidance that recommends long-term care facilities allow indoor visits for residents at any time, regardless of the residents’ or visitors’ vaccination status.

The guidance is applicable unless a resident is infected with COVID-19 or in quarantine. The guidance does not extend to unvaccinated residents if the county positivity rate is greater than 10 percent and less than 70 percent of the residents in the facility are vaccinated.

Although staff still fear the possibility of Oaknoll picking up the virus, Wheeler said he’s excited to see the retirement residence pick up small bits of normalcy.

“We’re just excited to keep moving forward, and that’s the biggest thing here,” Wheeler said. “One thing I will say is that it was actually a lot easier to lock down a year ago than it has been to reopen with so many changes. Taking these little steps towards being a bit more normal is hard to do, but we have to do it.”

As residents continue to take steps toward ordinary life, Haas said Oaknoll’s return to a pre-coronavirus reality feels more probable by the day.

“I just have a lot of hope, and so do the residents. On the day most of the residents were vaccinated with the first dose, it felt like old times,” Haas said. “There was this spirit of joy and hope, and we knew we were going to make it and that it’s all going to be OK.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of the assistant director of dining services at Oaknoll Retirement Community’s name. It is Taylor Wheeler, not Taylor Weever. The DI regrets the error.