Answering the Call to Support Caregivers at UMRC’s Kresge Center

What do a human resources business partner (Libby Brightman), a director of donor relations (Karen Owen), a life enrichment coordinator (Josie Pezzullo), and a sales advisor (Nicole Adams) all have in common? It turns out, a very big heart for the older adults they serve at United Methodist Retirement Communities (UMRC). When the call went out to recruit other team members to assist as caregivers at UMRC’s Kresge Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center (Kresge Center), these four answered that call.

Libby Brightman, who has worked for two years in Human Resources, says, “Direct care was not something I ever thought I would be doing. But the opportunity arose, and I knew the need was there. I decided, if our caregivers and residents need support, I’m capable of doing that, and I wanted to do that.”

Karen Owen had her family to consider – her husband is an essential healthcare worker, and they have three children, ages 3 through 9. “I had to take a moment and give it some thought,” says Karen. “My original career goal in college had been to become a physicians’ assistant and work in patient care. I thought, ‘How cool would it be to get a glimmer of what it’s like and to support the organization and our team members.’ It was a way for me to step in and help.”

The decision was a bit different for Josie Pezzullo, Life Enrichment coordinator for Kresge Center. “Since I know the residents so well, I felt I was a good candidate for it and that it might be a little easier for me to step in and help,” says Josie. “Our caregiving and life enrichment teams already work together very closely. I wanted to be a team player because it makes it easier for everyone when you know you can rely on someone to help. It really helps the residents the more the staff has support.”

Nicole Adams is a nine-year veteran at UMRC who started as a resident care assistant in Glazier Commons Assisted Living before moving to scheduling and, currently, the marketing and sales team. “I began my career as a CNA (certified nurse aide) working in a brain injury rehabilitation setting and had kept my certification until just a few months ago,” says Nicole. “It made sense for me to help.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact not only on older adults, but on our care team members as well who have needed to be off work due to their own illness or that of a family member.

On March 31, the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a temporary waiver of current CNA training requirements to fill gaps in direct-care staffing during this crisis, explains Missi Latter, Vice President of Quality and Compliance for UMRC & Porter Hills. “We were able to utilize both online and on-site skills training, pairing them with experienced care team members at Kresge Center, to bring our new recruits up-to-speed to assist with providing support to our skilled nursing residents.”

For approximately three weeks, Libby, Karen, Josie, and Nicole worked as CNAs at Kresge Center. Libby says her typical day, which started at 7:00am, included “checking to see who’s awake; taking residents’ vitals (done twice per day) to check for fever, oxygen levels, blood pressure, etc.; keeping your eyes peeled on everyone; serving breakfast; answering call lights; assisting residents in the bathroom; getting them dressed; adjusting people in bed; and floating on the floor to help other CNAs as needed.”

“Our care teams were so welcoming and thankful that we were able to support them,” Libby adds. “It’s incredible to see Mallory Underhile and Halle Mead (Kresge Center CNAs) who helped train me. They were so happy to see people step out of their usual roles to help. They work so hard, and they shared with me the things the residents like. I gained an incredible appreciation for them.”

For Karen who worked the 3:00pm to 11:00pm shift, her duties consisted of getting residents ready for dinner, helping to feed them, cleaning up, and preparing residents for bed. “My organizational skills from working in the UMRC Foundation translated into keeping track and checking off completed tasks,” says Karen. “But you never know when the next call light will go off. Our residents need us now more than ever. CNAs are taking on the role of families who can’t be there now; for example, helping take care of their laundry. It’s great to be able to help CNAs as they are taking on more responsibilities.”

Josie, who engages with residents during the day in her role as life enrichment coordinator, also worked some evening shifts. “It was really interesting to see the dynamic of the evening shift, and it gave me a better overall perspective of what our residents’ entire day is like,” Josie shares. “It was a really good learning experience that I will be able to take with me in my life enrichment role.”

Engaging with residents was most often mentioned as their favorite part of this experience. For Libby, who supports Huron Valley PACE and Thome PACE (Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly), “I always tried to take time to sit with a PACE participant and hear their story. This experience has given me even more opportunity to do this, to hear about our residents’ families and backgrounds. Being able to sit with a resident and reassure them that they are going to be ok has been great.”

“It’s really opened my eyes,” says Nicole. “Our residents are dealing with the virus more than I am. I get to go home, but this IS their home. It brightens their day so much to get that phone call from a loved one, or a family member waving through their window. That makes a huge difference. The care teams are doing all we can to help keep their spirits up, doing their nails, sitting down with them, and being a friendly face.”

Each of them will take this breadth of experience with them in their current jobs. For Libby, “It’s given me a new lens to be able to look at a policy or procedure or big operational change. Not only do I have the HR lens, but, now that I have put myself in a caregiver’s shoes, I can ask ‘how will this change affect them?’ I can sympathize vs. empathize because I’ve actually done it.”

Karen agrees: “This experience makes my work in the Foundation much more meaningful, and performing the role of a CNA gives me a new perspective. I realized how hard it is to work as a caregiver and then go home to your family. My kids wanted to hug me when I got home, but I had to take a shower and follow all precautions first. It takes its toll. Just to get a drink of water, you have to wash your hands, remove your mask a certain way, store the mask in a bag to not contaminate it. There’s so many little things you don’t think of.”

Each of the new recruits expressed their appreciation of what the CNAs and nursing teams do to care for the older adults who call Kresge Center home. “It’s definitely not for everyone,” says Josie. “It’s physically and emotionally hard work, and it takes a special person to want to do that work and to do it well. I’m really impressed and proud of our team.”

“I’m so impressed with the CNAs – they know each resident’s likes and dislikes without looking at a chart or database – they just knew!” says Karen. “They give residents individual attention, take what they learn, and adjust to meet their needs and provide an individualized approach to care.”

“It was very rewarding for me,” says Nicole, who is continuing to serve as a CNA for the time being. “This has taken me back and given me an appreciation of what I initially fell in love doing – caregiving.”