Once an Afterthought, Nursing Homes Embrace Social Media as Essential During COVID-19 Crisis

When Jonah Blumenthal, co-founder of the Pomona, N.Y.-based marketing firm 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.

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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.

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.

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.

Virtual connections

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.

Source: Champion Care via Facebook

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.

Even the simple facility website has become a vital hub of information for operators: Blumenthal’s team has worked to implement pop-up notifications directing visitors to the latest updates from management, including daily letters from administrators and the most recent guidelines from CMS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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.

The widespread development of coronavirus-specific mailing lists, text message chains, and social media groups can also help operators remain in compliance with rapidly evolving regulations. In New Jersey, the state health department has begun requiring providers to notify families or designated caregivers of either confirmed or suspected coronavirus cases within 24 hours “via telephone, e-mail, or another form of communication,” according to a report from NJ.com.

Though that initial notification must be followed up with a letter within three days, having the existing digital infrastructure makes that task easier, Friedland noted.

“That’s a big job, obviously, especially with everything going on,” he said.

Not just for residents, families

In addition to providing reassurance to families, operators have also turned to social media outlets to boost the spirits of caregivers. Workers at Paramount Care facilities have recorded videos for TikTok, a popular platform where users create short clips with music, while also demonstrating to the public that they have sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE).

“It helps build teamwork in the facility, and it helps distract the staff,” Friedland said.

Staffers at a Champion Care facility posed with rolls of toilet paper and a sign assuring the community that they had plenty of supplies; a different property posted photos of a staffer receiving balloons to celebrate her 40th anniversary of working at the same nursing home.

Blumenthal’s clients have made a point to send photos and videos of certified nursing assistants (CNAs) and other staffers performing their jobs and working to keep residents engaged — both as a way to recognize their hard work during a difficult time, and to illustrate that not every nursing home is currently a COVID-19 disaster zone.

“A big part of it is talking about the employees, and how they’re compliant, and how they’re happy,” 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.”

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