With three months COVID- free, at Saint Antoine there’s much to celebrate


NORTH SMITHFIELD – Rhode Island’s nursing homes have been hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past eight months, and keeping both a sunny demeanor and a clean bill of health hasn’t been easy for staff or residents at facilities such as North Smithfield’s Saint Antoine.

“Obviously, with this pandemic, we have had to pull every trick out of our bags,” said Melissa Smith, director of marketing and communications for the non-profit organization. “We have had to get extremely creative.”

The Rhodes Avenue buildings initially had several cases. And as the state implemented restrictions on visiting such facilities, keeping residents spirits up despite the lack of company quickly became a challenge.

The nursing home and rehabilitation center was among the first in the region to start weekly car parades. Dubbed “Monday Night Lights,” the popular events were a way for family – and the larger community – to show support for residents and staff.

“We really came up with the whole car parade concept as a way for people to channel their sadness and frustration in a positive way,” Smith said.

More recently, workers have struggled with the question of how to celebrate, as older clients arrive at milestone birthdays without friends and family to wish them well.

And when one patient who survived COVID-19, Leonne Cote, turned 102 earlier this month, her family reached out.

“They wanted to do something special,” Smith said.

Staff decorated an outdoor space for the festive event and Cote, wearing a crown, was all smiles as dozens of cars drove by beeping and waving signs and balloons. Smith shared photos from the event on social media, leading others to ask to organize similar celebrations.

“A lot of families reached out,” she said.

But 260-bed facility quickly found itself overwhelmed with requests.

“All of these people deserve a fabulous birthday in the pandemic,” Smith said.

Now, large celebrations and car parades will mark patient birthdays once a month. The first, held Thursday, Oct. 22 celebrated 26 patients, with outdoor visitors also cheering in support for the facility’s hard-working staff.

“It’s had the advantage of having staff feel like they’re appreciated,” Smith said. “It also lets residents know that they’re not forgotten.”

It’s a small, but important ritual at a time when loneliness could easily affect morale. While Saint Antoine’s assisted living unit, known as The Villa has had some flexibility with visitors, the Residence, providing long-term care, has been limited to appointment-based guests, with one person at a time staying no long than 20 minutes.

“It’s not ideal,” said Smith. “It’s the best we can do with the staffing the way we have it.”

That staff, Smith notes, has shown extraordinary dedication, limiting their own behavior and sacrificing for months to keep the facility virus-free.

“I see what they go through,” Smith said, pointing to one director who wears scrubs daily so she can visit with patients and help out. “She could be hiding in her office.”

“Every day is hard,” Smith said.

“To say for three months, we’ve had no cases in the building, that is huge,” she added. “You really want to make sure people hear that.”

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