Adapt, celebrate: Catholic health facilities serve up holiday cheer

December 15, 2020


In usual times, the annual Christmas celebration at the Bellbrook continuum of care facility in Rochester Hills, Michigan, is a grand affair. Throngs of residents and their family members stroll the decorated grounds, nosh on hors d'oeuvres and take in holiday entertainment provided by local performers.

Alayna Jimenez, a patient at CHRISTUS Health's The Children's Hospital of San Antonio, shows off the miniature float she made for the hospital's virtual Thanksgiving parade. Jessica Clayton, child life coordinator, says the festivities at the hospital may look a little different this year, "but we will still definitely ensure that our kiddos and their families get to celebrate."

But with COVID-19 infection rates surging in Michigan and throughout much of the U.S., senior residences and health care facilities are reinstituting strict viral containment protocols and visitation restrtictions that they may have eased last summer.

Recognizing that this year more than ever everyone needs a little Christmas to make spirits rise again, staff of Catholic facilities are adapting holiday celebrations. Large gatherings are out, and celebrity visits, including by the jolly man himself, may have to take place over Zoom. Libby Delaney, executive director of Trinity Health's Senior Communities team in Rochester, Michigan, and Bellbrook's administrator, said since musicians and other performers won't be able to come into the facility this Christmas, staff will come a caroling.

And while they've put a lid on Christmas buffets, the food service team has plans to plate scrumptious holiday meals on decorative tray mats and deliver them to the residents' rooms.

Staff are stuffing stockings with gifts selected to delight each recipient. Staff are taking Christmas pictures of residents and assembling a cookbook of resident recipes, so that residents can gift these items to their families.

"The goal is getting residents the best experience we can give them," says Delaney.

Old traditions, new ways
Adeline Rocco is director of mission and spiritual care for Covenant Health's St. Mary's Villa, a continuum of care community in Elmhurst Township, Pennsylvania. She says that in the past, church groups, local choirs and other groups would flock to the facility to spread Christmas cheer, and residents took field trips to see children's holiday programs.

Molly Kate Adelmann, a child life specialist at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital in St. Louis, brings a gift and a virtual visit from the Grinch to patient Frank Snow during the hospital's Christmas in July event.

Nursing units squared off in a decorating contest, with each unit choosing its holiday theme. Staff did most of the decorating, accenting doors and patients' rooms with handmade crafts made by the occupant. Residents' loved ones would come in to view the decorations and cast their votes for Gingerbread Way, Winter Wonderland or other entries.

Rocco says this year plans call for groups to perform holiday programs via videoconference. The decorating contest is a go, with three units competing. Families will view the entries virtually before casting their ballots.

If infection rates in the facility and county are low enough, St. Mary's Villa will allow in-person visits, with residents and their visitors separated by plexiglass partitions.

As in the past, staff have chosen resident names from a Christmas tree and will assemble personalized gift packages. Santa himself — who will wear PPE and may look suspiciously like a member of the facility's activity staff — will go door to door throughout the nursing home delivering the gift-wrapped packages to the residents on Christmas day.

Residents also will receive as gifts toiletries, crafts, jewelry and other small items donated by churches and community members.

"This is an active, joyful time of the year at St. Mary's Villa, and we plan to keep it that way," says Rocco. "We're listening to what our residents want" and making every effort to make that possible.

Getting creative
In early December, staff at Our Lady of the Lake Children's Hospital in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, were planning their annual Santa's workshop, where parents of hospitalized children select free gifts for all their children.

Organizers were asking the community to provide its usual generous support for the event. Volunteers were expected to be allowed into the hospital auditorium to set up the tables of toys and clothes. Instead of browsing the gift selections in person, parents are likely to be making their choices virtually.

Halloween was a dress rehearsal for adapting celebrations. Normally, wizards and princesses trick-or-treat at the nursing stations before joining a carnival-like event in the lobby. Because of the infection restrictions this year, nurses and other staffers in costume delivered goodies to patients' rooms.

"When it comes to special celebrations like Halloween or Christmas, we just try to make it like a home-away-from-home experience," says Sharon Wesberry, manager of the child life department at the hospital, which is part of the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System.

At Mercy Health-Children's Hospital in Toledo, Ohio, Nursing Director Donna Ruedisueli says instead of the usual visit to patient rooms by Santa, the Bon Secours Mercy Health hospital is considering using staffers as Santa's helpers to deliver goodies and having Santa visit virtually via the closed-circuit TV.

And, rather than have groups from the community hand deliver their gifts to children as in years past, hospital staff are meeting representatives from the gifting groups in the lobby and filming the donation handoff so videos can be shared and gratitude expressed on social media.

Even the celebrations among staff at the 72-bed hospital, which is housed within Mercy Health St. Vincent Medical Center, won't be the same. Normally, teams hold potlucks in break rooms, but these gatherings are out due to precautions against viral spread. Ruedisueli says the hospital is encouraging staff to stick with individual meals and not to eat in groups. The hospital's dietary department is looking at ways to make its holiday meals special, especially for the staff members who will be on duty on the holidays.

The new normal
Kim Eighmey is team leader of child life and music therapy at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital in St. Louis. Her team has worked with the hospital's incident command center to get approvals for holiday celebrations that don't violate infection protocols.

"Our patients, just like us, have endured a lot this year," Eighmey says. "I think COVID has completely changed the way that we look at the world. We've all gone through this collective stressful year and so feeling a sense of normalcy is comforting to adults and to kids, especially."

This Christmas, Santa will set a new bar for safe social distancing with video visits to inpatients broadcast from his home at the North Pole. The Grinch will be remoting in from Whoville to spread joy, as he did during a Christmas in July event. Any celebrities who want to pay a holiday call to cheer up the youngsters, like rapper Nelly did last year, also will have to do so via video screen.

Regardless of what restrictions are in place come late December, Eighmey says her team will figure out ways to bring joy and to help families maintain holiday traditions. "It's our culture here at Glennon to keep spirits high and try to do the best for our kids even when circumstances are not what we hoped for," she says.

Food and cheer
The PeaceHealth Oregon network hosts a "Spirit of Gratitude" feast each year for all its clinic and hospital staff.

This year, instead of staff gathering in a festooned hall, hospital leadership teams will deliver boxed meals along with expressions of gratitude to caregivers who have endured a year like no other, says Rev. Micki Varner, PeaceHealth Oregon director of mission services.

A printed blessing will be included on each box, and a blessing also will be delivered over the intercom system at every shift. The network's chief operating officer, Todd Salnas, will send a message of gratitude to all staff in the lead-up to the distribution of the holiday meal boxes.

In the spirit of Christmas, Rev. Varner quotes Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB: "It is not joy that makes us grateful, it is gratitude that makes us joyful."

"This year of all years, it will be our ability to stay grounded in gratitude that will be our pathway to joy and hope," says Rev. Varner.



Copyright © 2020 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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