Heart and Soul Senior Communities in the Bay have dodged COVID so far

by JR Valrey, Black New World Journalists Society

The founder and CEO of Heart and Soul Communities, Ericka Tillis, is a pioneer in the senior-assisted living industry in Oakland and San Leandro. There are many reasons for that, but to name one, it’s because her facilities and residents have remained unscathed by the COVID-19 epidemic when the virus has been running unbridled over the senior community as well as the Black and Latino communities of Alameda County. 

With more than 11,000 people infected with COVID-19 and 189 deaths in Alameda County alone, she is a stellar example of what it takes to survive and thrive in a pandemic, particularly when your targeted population is under the gun. Pressure busts pipes as well as creates diamonds, and Ericka Tillis has proven to be a local diamond in the rough when it comes to protecting our seniors. 

After 15 years of business and service, she was gracious enough to sit down for this exclusive interview to talk about the techniques she employed to keep herself, residents and staff safe from COVID-19, as well as she give us a very basic education on senior-assisted living. Check out Ericka Tillis in her own words as she takes us to class. 

JR Valrey: How have your senior homes been doing against the coronavirus pandemic?

Ericka Tillis: To date, we have had no positive COVID cases in our facility, so I would say that we are doing a good job of keeping our residents and our staff safe. I will say, the most challenging aspect is keeping their life as “normalized” as possible, while your own life due to the “state of the nation” may be in complete disarray. I come from a culture that expresses love by hugging, kissing, touching; so to go from making your residents feel loved to “social distancing” as a standard has been quite a challenge.

We have learned to spend more time outside, and to engage in activities that don’t require as much one on one contact. I think for all of us it has been a new way of life, but we are up for the challenge.

JR Valrey: How have you been able to remain COVID free? What are some of the standards, policies and techniques that you have been and are utilizing to keep that status?

Ericka Tillis: Along with complying with all of Alameda County’s and the Department of Social Services Community Care Licensing Standards, we’ve implemented a few others as follows:

  • We’ve implemented a sanitation station for all staff, in which they keep clean scrubs onsite here and change their clothes and wash their hands before entering the facility.
  • We’ve increased our staff meetings from once per week to twice per week so that we can keep abreast on patient care and new findings related to the COVID virus.
  • We’ve distributed masks and hand sanitizer as a part of the uniform to keep at all times
  • We’ve implemented a patient waiting room for essential workers – nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists – who need to visit the residents in the front of the facility equipped with a gown, mask and hand sanitizer for them to assess just them and the resident. We bring that particular resident to them for assessment. After the assessment is over, we sanitize the room, we wash the resident’s hands and then return them to the community. The essential worker only enters that room and never comes in contact with the rest of the community. 
  • Deliveries are all opened outside with gloves on. The contents are brought in, but the boxes are left outside.
  • We now do most shopping online by restaurant distributors to avoid stores and to avoid contact in order to keep residents safe.
  • We’ve implemented teleconference and zoom as a means of communication for our residents and our other healthcare partners in order to maintain their health and keep them safe.
  • During this time, we feel a responsibility to keep families connected, so I have re-launched my website, Facebook and Instagram educating families on what we are doing amidst COVID and so families can keep connected during this uncertain time.
  • Lastly but most importantly, we continue to pray, provide activities, wonderful cuisine, celebrate each day, and provide a loving, fun, safe environment for our residents! 

When an older adult loses five percent or more of their weight over a period of six months – and they are not specifically working on weight loss – this could be cause for alarm. 

JR Valrey: What are some of the common misconceptions that people have about senior living?

Ericka Tillis: No. 1 misconception:  If you put your loved one in a “home” you don’t care. Or you are “putting them away” or you have somehow failed because you are no longer able to care for them at home. I think the opposite and have seen the opposite, especially in households in which seniors are at home by themselves. 

Oftentimes depression and isolation sets in for so many of our most vulnerable population. In many cases where seniors are at home, they can no longer prepare meals for themselves, they can no longer do their own laundry, they begin to lose weight and it’s decline for their overall quality of life. 

Let’s just take weight loss from this scenario: Many senior or older adults lose weight as they age, which is not necessarily a good thing. When an older adult loses five percent or more of their weight over a period of six months – and they are not specifically working on weight loss – this could be cause for alarm. 

As senior citizens become less mobile, they tend to spend more time alone at home. Their social community also tends to become smaller; perhaps their spouse or some of their friends pass away. This increased isolation can contribute to depression. Medications your loved one is taking for heart disease, diabetes or another chronic ailment may also make depression worse. 

Weight loss can also be a sign that your loved one is physically struggling to feed themselves. Perhaps they no longer have the stamina to cook meals, or maybe they don’t feel safe using the stove. 

Delicious, nutritious dinners served at Heart and Soul Communities

However, I have some residents who eat all day every day and stay slim and trim! Keeping a healthy diet and ensuring food intake is key especially if you have diet restrictions. All in all, I think the most important factor to keep in mind is that if they are home alone or by themselves or in a facility that might not give them the level of care they require, there is a home out there for them. When finding the right home for your loved one, I think that could be the introduction to a beautiful “next chapter” of their life, even if unfamiliar or unknown.

Misconception No. 2: If your loved one falls and breaks a hip or gets injured, I think that is upsetting for the facility or care home and the resident’s family. I think oftentimes it’s easy to jump to conclusions around how or why the injury, incident or fall happened. 

Let’s take falls for instance: Firstly, I think that we should all educate ourselves around fall prevention, as falls are very common among seniors. Appropriate lighting, walkways free of clutter, medications, appropriate glasses, rugs, slippers with non-grip bottoms and the list goes on are all reasons that seniors can fall. 

At times we can do everything we can to prevent falls, but at times seniors unfortunately fall. Oftentimes due to weight loss, they break bones, and I think this is especially upsetting. 

We help get seniors the resources they need – up to date prescription glasses, ensuring all of their areas are free of clutter, making sure that if lightbulbs are out they are replaced in a timely fashion, and making sure they have appropriate walkers, canes and equipment. I think we should focus on prevention, not fault, but if it does happen, a care plan for a quick and safe recovery is needed.

Misconception No. 3: The minute you place your loved in their new care setting, everything will be perfect. I’ve had so many scenarios in which families can no longer manage their loved ones physical, psychological, emotional, cognitive behaviors and then place them in our care setting and VOILA! 

Families think things should be perfect overnight; it’s not likely. If they exhibited certain behaviors with their family, they will most likely do those same things with us. Our challenge is creating a space and using our experience to carve those into something good, but that takes time. 

Another resident of Heart and Soul Communities

One of the first things I do with my families is have an in depth conversation and try to get as much understanding as I can around background, culture, upbringing, family history. All will play a part in their aging process. 

I let them know that we are now in a marriage. We have to commit to their loved one that we are going to make this relationship work, and just like in any new marriage oftentimes you have to learn the other person – their likes, their dislikes, their boundaries. 

I let the family members know they all play a key part in that process. I like to be open and honest that adjustments are difficult at any age, but especially difficult for seniors, and we all have to be as patient and understanding as possible with them, but we have to trust the process.

JR Valrey: What are some of the reasons why people choose to place their loved ones in senior homes versus keeping them at home?

Ericka Tillis: We live in the most expensive place in the nation, and most likely even if you want to keep mom or dad at home, everyone has to work. The reality is as we age and need support, that often means we need to be in supportive environments; thus we need to look at removing ourselves from being in our homes and being in supportive living environments and often times that means placement in senior living homes. 

If a loved one has a medical or psychological need that you are no longer able to manage, that is also often a reason that loved ones need to be moved. There’s an abundance of reasons to need placement. I think the key is finding a community that meets the needs of your loved one.

Dementia care I believe stands on its own as a reason for families to choose alternative living for their loved ones. Depending on the behaviors, dementia care can be very difficult to manage without the proper training and or expertise. 

Imagine going to work all day and having to care for someone with the following symptoms: Confusion in the evening hours, memory loss, disorientation, inability to speak or understand language, making things up, mental confusion, or inability to recognize common things. Or how about, getting enraged for no reason or blaming family members for stealing, paranoia, wandering, both day and night, restlessness, lack of restraint or fighting. All of these symptoms are common but for a family member who has never experienced this with their loved one, this can be traumatic. 

JR Valrey: How long have you been involved in senior living and housing? 

Ericka Tillis: I’ve had licensed care homes for the last 14 years. I got involved when I was looking for my grandmother, a care home for her, and couldn’t find a home where I thought she would thrive. I then built a place that I would want to be or that I would want my parent to be, and here we are. 

Heart and Soul Communities is a place dedicated to senior service and where meeting their physical, spiritual and emotional needs in an environment that recognizes their cultural differences is a way of life. Heart and Soul is not only committed to the lives of our seniors, but also to the souls of our seniors.

Our culturally competent atmosphere allows each client to be cared for as an individual, with a passion to understand their past experiences, cultural sensitivities and beliefs, values, so that we can integrate our quality care model with their specific needs in mind.

We strive to be the best in care, cuisine, communication and condition, and we know it starts with humility and service to our seniors. I am humbled by the seniors who have paved the way and built this nation so that we can strive and achieve greater things. My hope is that I may use Heart and Soul as that platform to thank them for their service and to be an advocate for those who don’t have advocacy for themselves.

JR Valrey:  How do people get in touch with you?

Ericka Tillis: They can reach me at Heart and Soul, either 3770 Suter St, Oakland, 510-479-1654, or 2245 Sol St. San Leandro, 510-686-1567.

JR Valrey, journalist, author, filmmaker and founder of the Black New World Journalists Society, can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com or on Facebook. Visit www.youtube.com/blockreporttv. All stories related to COVID-19 were partially made possible by the Akonadi Fund #SoLoveCanWin.