Dr. El

The holidays are typically a busy time for long-term care centers, filled with special activities and extra visitors. Because of the pandemic, this year will be much different. 

Planning, collaboration, creativity and communication will be needed to create reasonable alternatives to usual events. Take action now to avoid a season of putting out the fires of angry family members, distraught residents and burned-out staff. 

Below are some ideas to sidestep problems and create goodwill befitting the season.


As has been the case for months, families will want to visit their loved ones in the facility, but state regulations will likely prevent their doing so. As the end of the year approaches, we can expect an increase in requests from relatives unfamiliar with the ongoing restrictions and perhaps expecting holiday exemptions. Solid communication is the key to success here.

  • Assign a task force or qualified staff members to maintain essential communications with families. 
  • Make use of your website, newsletter, email, snail mail, texting, phone system and lobby postings for accurate, consistent messaging that reaches as many family members in as many different ways as possible.
  • Facility websites should have clear, updated information about state regulations so that family members understand the parameters. Include a link to the department of health site to show that the facility is following state guidelines, but use simple, understandable language on your own page. 
  • Let family members know about restrictions such as two-week quarantine periods for out-of-state visitors, etc. Remind them that they may face quarantine upon returning home as well.
  • Be clear about guidelines for entering the facility, including the need for COVID-19 testing within a certain time frame. Provide information about where to get tested. 
  • When making visitation appointments, emphasize that they’re tentative and subject to change based on cases in the facility or community.
  • Offer suggestions about alternatives to family visits, such as delivering food, purchasing clothing, making use of video chats, etc. Families want to be connected and may need help thinking outside the box.


Holiday decorating may be standard this year, but other aspects of celebrations will need to adapt to the constraints of the pandemic.

  • On the top of my wish list this year is for Santa to bring everyone a plexiglass room or heated patio — and elves to staff it. Alternatives to Santa include redirecting funds, obtaining a grant, raising money through facility bake sales or in-house events, engaging families in fund-raising efforts and turning to local resources for donations. It’s not an ideal way to visit with family, but these are not ideal times.
  • There will be greater demand for video chats around the holidays, so consider increasing the number of devices and staff to perform this essential function. There may be a need for seasonal workers, calling back retired recreation professionals or social workers, or adding aides devoted to this task.
  • Find a way to bring the hairstylist back into the facility or enlist trained staff to provide this service. We’re seven months into this pandemic and many residents haven’t had a haircut since March. It’s understandable that family members might panic about the care their parent is getting when a man who normally sports a crew cut is looking like Rip Van Winkle or a ZZ Top band member. It’s also understandable that residents might feel depressed or embarrassed about their appearance and the lack of control over even this small aspect of their lives. This is an easy fix with a big impact.


By this point in the year, your staff members are probably feeling pandemic fatigue. The prospect of a holiday season without family gatherings is grim. Nevertheless, in order to reduce the chances of an outbreak in the facility, continued vigilance is necessary. 

  • Remind staff members about the potential impact of their holiday plans, promote alternatives and lead by example. I’ll go first: I’m forgoing my usual Thanksgiving plans unless they’re being held in a heated outdoor area. 
  • Encourage options such as video chats and “Christmas in July.”
  • Be creative about holiday gifts or raffles. Staff members might appreciate gift certificates to chain restaurants for themselves and distant loved ones so they can enjoy the same foods simultaneously. Raffle off devices to assist with virtual contact. Give gift cards to restaurants that offer safer outdoor dining in winter.
  • Offer special hours for the heated patio or plexiglass room for staff members and their families.

For all

  • Provide suggestion boxes and an email address so that everyone can submit ideas to make the pandemic holidays more manageable. There’s a lot of untapped creativity in your facility.

A thoughtful approach to the season will afford weary staff, residents and families a chance for hope and connection. It will show that long-term care leaders are doing their best under difficult circumstances to meet emotional needs while maintaining physical safety. 

Eleanor Feldman Barbera, Ph.D., author of The Savvy Resident’s Guide, is an Award of Excellence winner in the Blog Content category of the APEX Awards for Publication Excellence program. She also is a Bronze Medalist for Best Blog in the American Society of Business Publication Editors national competition andGold Medalist in the Blog-How To/Tips/Service category in their Midwest Regional competition. To contact her for speaking engagements and/or content writing, visit her at EleanorFeldmanBarbera.com.