Picture this: You’re an Interim Executive Director when COVID-19 Suddenly Hits
LeaderStat Interim Executive John Turongian recently served as the Interim Executive Director of a Life Plan Community. In the middle of John’s assignment, COVID-19 showed up. In the midst of having our world disrupted, John led his community through its first pandemic experience. We hear from him firsthand about the challenges and triumphs his community faced during this time.
Tell us about your previous experience as an Interim ED and how your latest assignment was vastly different.
In most cases as Interim ED, my goals were to improve relationships and stabilize the community. What started as a typical assignment quickly changed in mid-March with COVID-19 and the declaration of a national emergency. Any movement forward was essentially put on hold while we were dealing with the virus. The focus shifted from relationship building and stabilization, to protecting residents and staff from an invisible enemy.
Shortly into your assignment, COVID-19 changed nearly everything about how senior living communities operate. What were some of the first changes you made during this time?
At first, in late February, it was a matter of improving infection control practices. In mid-March when it became evident that this was very serious, we shut down visitations, closed dining and common areas, started screening employees, and geared up to ensure we had enough food and supplies, including PPE. We coordinated with the other communities to ensure that we were not making decisions in a vacuum.
Tell us how you created emergency COVID-19 protocols and a specialized unit. How difficult was that and were these changes accepted by residents, families, and staff?
We had support from the corporate office and sharing with the other communities in creating protocols.
How did residents and families adjust to not being able to see their loved ones and what were some of the programs your team implemented to help with this?
At first, there was quite a bit of resistance from residents and families. I would smile and tell people, “I have to keep you safe, even it means that you get mad at me.” As the seriousness of the disease became evident, residents and family members became more understanding and cooperative. In order to allow people to connect with loved ones, we expanded telecommunications including Facetime, Zoom, emails, and used internal television for exercise and updates. We also had written updates delivered with meals to our apartments and cottages. This seemed to go over well.
During your entire assignment, what were your biggest challenges?
- People wanted daily communication. We realized how important it is to let them know what it is going on – both good and bad. Every time we had a COVID-19 case, we let the community know immediately (within 12 hours of finding out) by emails and memos. On occasion, I would provide a televised update. I met with the Resident Council by Zoom at least weekly. Residents soon realized they could rely on the Resident Council for information, as well.
- The stress of finding out that someone had tested positive for COVID-19. The moment by moment concern for the health of residents and staff can’t be understated. There were lots of sleepless nights.
- I was living on campus, which has its advantages during an emergency. However, I didn’t get a break. Due to travel restrictions, I was unable to get home for more than 2 months (10 weeks). I had moments when I thought “this isn’t worth it.” My sense of responsibly prevailed, and I got lots of support from my wife. We had at least one or two calls on Facetime every day.
It certainly is a difficult time. Share with us your biggest surprise and/or most rewarding moments during your time as an Interim ED.
My biggest surprise was how little we understood the disease, and how quickly things evolved. It seems like we had to adjust almost daily. The most rewarding is when my assignment was over, the number of thank you notes and comments that I received from residents and staff members.
Your assignment is over. What do you have planned now?
I plan to take a few months off to reassess my situation. Depending on whether a vaccine is developed by 2021, I may decide to return to work in a Life Plan Community, but for now I need a break.
Do you have any advice for Executive Directors and how they can better navigate this new COVID-19 landscape?
Through the tough days, be resilient and trust what your heart is telling you. Know that you are doing right by taking care of the people in the community and keeping them informed. In the end, this is what your residents, staff, and families will remember, and all the other noise will be unimportant.
Thank you, John, for all that you do to serve older adults and the tremendous amount of work you took on during this engagement. We appreciate you!