Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
As the threat of Covid-19 leaks slowly but inevitably across our city and county, the challenge and controversy surrounding it cannot be overstated. And the measure of the men and women tasked with overseeing our safety and wellbeing has become, well, immeasurable.
Meet Lisa Hulse, Vice President of Operations for The Villages of San Luis Obispo, a collection of four communities offering independent, assisted living, and memory care. At The Palms, The Oaks, Garden Creek, and Sydney Creek, more than 300 of our most vulnerable citizens—the elderly—live, in highly communal settings. So in the early days of March, when the first confirmed U.S. cases of Covid-19 grew from 30 to 3,500, Hulse knew it was just a matter of time before the first cases were confirmed in our neck of the woods. And she took action.
In addition to having more than 20 years of administrative experience
across several well-known senior living companies, Hulse is also a nurse with more than a passing familiarity with the imperatives of a sterile environment. Just after earning her BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) at Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles, one of her first jobs was in the bone marrow transplant unit of L.A.’s Children’s Hospital.
“It was a completely sterile environment,” she said. “We had to wear sterile full-body suits every day; our patients’ lives depended on it.”
Since February, Hulse has been zealously studying breaking information coming out of the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), the WHO (World Health Organization), the CDPH (California Department of Public Health), and the SLO DPH (San Luis Obispo Department of Public Health). On March 15, she sent out letters and emails to all residents and family members, implementing a series of steps taken swiftly and decisively to curb contact and reduce the likelihood of infection.
These initial steps included prohibiting visitors (including friends and family members), confinement to home (apartment) as much as possible, reduced occupancy of the dining room, and canceled activities. In just a few days, a second letter—adjusted to the quickly-changing landscape—was sent out closing the dining rooms entirely, reducing contact with staff members, and canceling transportation except for essential trips only (doctor appointments, etc.).
“Lisa’s reasoning skills—her ability to prioritize essential services— and her calm demeanor are two of her greatest strengths,” said Community Relations Director, Jane Lefebre. “In the midst of an ever-changing environment, she remains calm and in control.”
Even in the best of times, it takes many moving parts to keep things running smoothly in a community like The Villages. From drivers to deliveries, from caregivers to food preparation, from marketing to maintenance, accounting to landscaping, housekeeping to life enrichment—more than 300 people depend on all of these working in concert. On top of that, these communities are by their nature, communal; as one Palms resident put it, “Most of us moved here for the social interaction.”
Now, in the time of Covid-19, all that communal living has ceased, creating not just a whole new set of protocols, but a whole new set of problems to be solved. How do you feed 300 people three times a day in the safety of their own apartments? How do you get people to their appointments on time with fewer drivers? How do you make the best use of maintenance workers, housekeepers, front desk staff while reducing staff-to-resident contact? This is not a hotel that you can simply close. This is their home.
As Hulse’s first obligation is to limit residents’ exposure to the outside world (and the virus that might come in with it), the social isolation and distancing had to be first. And it has been the most difficult. Family members and residents alike understand, for the most part, the value of these practices. But it has been hard to endure, leading to some difficult but necessary conversations. “Lisa is comfortable getting out in front of any situation,” said Garden Creek’s Executive Director, Kirk Klotthor. “This gives her the ability to address tasks promptly while others might procrastinate or hesitate. … Her experience and confidence are blended with care and humility; making her a good partner as well as a good leader.”
Housekeeping and maintenance staff are now busy wiping down all common, frequently-touched surfaces such as doors, knobs, handrails, elevator buttons, and the like. Essential visitors and staff are health screened upon arrival. Villages drivers are now also running essential errands, picking up medicines, groceries, and pet supplies.
Life Enrichment Director, Natalie Ellingson, is visiting each resident (at a safe distance), making the rounds every day with a cart full of puzzles, books, and videos. She also provides links to entertainment they can stream on their computers if they have them. Lately, she’s added a wine and cocktail hour to her daily rounds.
With his talented chefs, Kevin Avila, Jorge Torres, and Bonifacio Aboites, plus a crew of dedicated longtime servers, as well as energetic college students working part-time in Villages dining rooms, Director of Dining Services Ben Kelly has implemented a food service delivery system that keeps everyone well-fed in the safety and privacy of their own apartments.
“We realize that organizing such an endeavor is a very complex task,” said one couple in a thank you note to Kelly. “Please share our thanks to your servers who have braved all types of weather to see that the meals are delivered to each one of us. We look forward to the knock on the door and their smiling faces. It makes our day!” Now those faces are also wearing masks as well as using gloves.
“This has been a time for brain-storming and working collaboratively,” said Hulse. “I’m amazed at the great ideas residents, family members and staff have brought to me that we are using on a daily basis.” For example, one family member sent a video link for D.I.Y. masks using shop paper towels, and maintenance team members spent a day creating the masks in their office. Another family member suggested that the Villages website should start posting the steps we are taking to keep people safe on a daily basis. Now concerned family members and friends can go to www.villagesofslo.com and click on the bright pink banner that says “Coronavirus questions?”
Hulse wants to be a resource for others. “Keeping our residents safe means also keeping the community safe,” she explained. “We’re here to help.” She also stressed that cost is not a concern when it comes to the safety and wellbeing of her residents.
Despite the inconvenience of the new rules, resident support has been strong.
“I’m amazed at how they just jumped on this,” said Oaks resident Marian Rooney, referring to the swift and firm isolation orders. “I think they are doing the very best they can.”
“They even notified our families,” said Nancy Inman. “I was scrambling to let everyone know and then I realized they already had,” she explained. “I so appreciated that.”
“It’s very reassuring to be getting the care we need,” added Louise Wang. “They [Lisa and her staff] are very keen and up to date. We’re very lucky.”
“The quality of the food is very good,” said Jim Farmer. “And that’s very important right now. The social isolation is troublesome, but needed. The response [from Villages staff] has been uniform, consistent, and conforms with what the experts are telling us.”
“I think we should throw them a big party!” said Sari Dworkin, referring to dining staff and others who are all working together to “… keep us going.”
In fact, Hulse said that when all is said and done, she hopes “We can all take a moment and evaluate what we could have done differently. … How can we learn from this and what actions can we take around those lessons.”
Hulse comes to work every day despite her own “underlying condition” (asthma). Her two adult children, plus one in-law (along with a dog and cat) have all come to shelter at home at the house in Cambria she shares with husband Hank and their bunny called Chai Latte. She smiled as she described the four work stations now set up in her home, one for each of her working-from-home family members.
“They are worried about me,” she admits. “But they know this is the job.”
In the aftermath, Hulse hopes we will use the time to celebrate and collaborate. “We’re used to serving seniors here at The Villages, but this crisis has united everyone, every generation. It’s something we can all relate to, all empathize with.”
“Lisa has led by example,” said Executive Director of Dining Services, Ben Kelly. “She’s acted in the best interest of our residents with firm tenacity every step of the way. We’re lucky to have her at the helm of our ship as we navigate these rough waters.”
Who knows what the world will look like by the time this article hits the streets. That’s a whole three weeks from now. But for now, in this corner of the county, Lisa Hulse keeps calm and guides her team with a smart and steady hand. The last publicly held Palms Residents Association letter says it all. In it the president, Lou Fogo said:
“Thank you to the administration and staff for their proactive actions to keep The Villages from the coronavirus. [to date, there are no cases of Covid-19] Their caution far outweighs any inconveniences we may experience. We are living in a facility that takes responsibility for our health very seriously. This experience will be one we will remember and talk about for a very long time.”