A Return Visit to Evergreen Village

6 min read

One Year Later, How Has It Changed? 

It’s an idyllic scene out of a past when COVID-19 was not disrupting senior communities across the country: Seniors in lawn chairs and wheelchairs have gathered outside their assisted living facility on a sunny day, enjoying a performance by a singer with a guitar.

Except this is the present, not the past. These seniors are wearing masks and sitting six feet apart from each other under a canopy, spreading out into the circular driveway that leads up to their building. That social distancing is the new reality required during the time of the Coronavirus pandemic.

The seniors are able to enjoy the concert by Nathan Dillon because no one in their development, not one of 109 residents and 59 staff at Evergreen Village in Bloomington, IN, has caught the disease.

“Yes, they have done a fantastic job,” according to Brian Poulin, principal of Evergreen Village’s owner/developer, Evergreen Partners of Oakland Park, FL.

Evergreen is an affordable assisted living project, leveraging Medicaid waivers on the healthcare side to go along with housing subsidies, such as the Low Income Housing Tax Credit. Finished in 2018, the 115-unit studio- and one bedroom- development cost some $21 million, according to Evergreen Partners’ Poulin, and was just opening when Tax Credit Advisor featured it as an example of an affordable assisted living project last year.

Though it looks much the same on the outside this year, it couldn’t be more different in the way it is operated now in the age of the Coronavirus.

Early Quarantine
How can other managements achieve this impressive result, as the virus remains a potent threat to seniors and may be set for a second wave this fall?

“Start early. Be diligent,” says Rod Burkett, chief executive of Gardant Management Solutions, who characterizes its effort to safeguard the residents of Evergreen Village and 55 other senior communities it manages as “we were breaking new ground every day.”

Burkett, a thoughtful man who quotes poet Rainer Maria Rilke and mourns the passing of country legend John Prine (a COVID victim) in his notes in the community newsletter, speaks passionately of Gardant’s determination to keep its seniors healthy.

Perhaps the biggest factor was the decision to quarantine residents the second week of March, days to weeks ahead of other communities, Burkett says.

Gardant, based in Bourbonnais, IL, took plenty of grief, both from residents and their families, about the early restriction of outside visits and confining residents to their apartments 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Evergreen also put in place a stringent regimen of testing, regimentation, sanitizing, requiring masks and checking on residents three times a day for temperature, pulse and blood oxygen. Residents never left the building except for medical reasons.

The seniors and their families were quite unhappy at first, says Burkett. But no one is complaining now.

“We had to go from the love and caring business to the tough love business,” Burkett explains.

The next big factor was communication. “We knew it would be impossible to overcommunicate on this,” Burkett says. Gardant’s task force on the viral threat, made up of administration, staff and healthcare workers, met seven days a week, multiple times a day, trying to stay ahead of the deadly outbreak.

Scrounging Like Radar
Gardant also developed an ability to scrounge, “like Radar O’Reilly on MASH,” he says, especially when it came to staff personal protective equipment (PPE). “We had to beg, borrow and plead,” he says.

The trouble was Gardant was competing with all the other senior management companies at the same time, and for the same thing. He even remembers reaching out to local Ford and John Deere plants that were repurposed into making plastic visors.

“It was a real free for all,” he says. “You were kind of on your own to scrap, scrape and scramble.”

Not everything about the quarantine has been grim and miserable, remembers Evergreen Village Administrator Josh Dodds. He and staff devised Quarantine Bingo, for instance, in which residents would stand in their separate doorways as he would call out the numbers while standing in the hallway.

Residents also became adept at using programs, like Skype and FaceTime, to connect to the outside world, he says, using iPads provided to them by Indiana University.

The May 2020 “Quarantine Concert” at the affordable community is just the first of a series planned through the summer by Gardant as the residents continue to shelter in place but gradually are returning to a semblance of normal (Indiana has started to “reopen” long-term care facilities as of June 1, though judiciously and in phases).

“To Window” Becomes a Verb
Among many changes in their new reality, residents and staff have begun to use the word “window” as a verb. First-floor residents can have visitors at their closed windows, while second and third floor residents can open them to “window” down to family members below, says Dodds. Sometimes they use cell phones.

Sanitary protocols are stringent, to the point of allowing mail to sit untouched for a day in case it might be contaminated with the virus. But though it is crunch time all the time, staff has developed a great sense of camaraderie.

“We do have a great and close relationship with our residents,” Dodds says.

Gardant’s website has a frequently updated chart detailing the effects of the disease on its communities. The most recent one tallies no cases at Evergreen, either among residents or staff, and no deaths have occurred.

Gardant’s most recent total running count of all its 4,865 residents and 2,809 staff in its portfolio of 56 properties shows a remarkably low 28 resident infections and five deaths. No staff member has died.

Not every senior housing manager has achieved such results, especially at nursing homes. A look at Indiana’s statewide experience as of early June shows 4,357 COVID cases were registered in 243 long-term care facilities in the state with 945 deaths. Other states have fared worse, such as New Jersey, where at the same time 33,318 residents of LTC facilities had come down with the virus, and 5,158 had died.

“Err on the side of safety,” Dodds advises. “Err on the side of protecting your residents even if they’re upset you’re doing it.”

Story Contacts:
Brian Poulin, Principal, Evergreen Partners, Oakland Park, FL

Rod Burkett, Chief Executive, Gardant Management Solutions
Bourbonnais, IL

Josh Dodds, Administrator, Evergreen Village, Bloomington, IN

Mark Fogarty has covered housing and mortgages for more than 30 years. A former editor at National Mortgage News, he has written extensively about tax credits.