Retirement home for Hollywood vets has a unique strategy for keeping seniors safe from COVID-19
Chair yoga had concluded, but before the call-in trivia game show could begin, Bob Beitcher had a critical message for the 227 residents of his retirement community.
“Stay the ... home,” the generally well-mannered chief executive of the Motion Picture and Television Fund urged over the campus’ closed-circuit television station.
The Woodland Hills colony — which has accommodations for both independent living and long-term care — had already been under shelter-in-place orders for nearly a month. Hospitality staff had been delivering meals directly to residents’ doors, communal gatherings were canceled and essential employees were receiving daily thermal scans.
Still, Beitcher was running into people breaking the rules. He’d just crossed paths with a resident who was picking up a prescription at the CVS across the street and ran into another who had gone to the bank — even though “we had told them 20 times: ‘We have someone who can do these things for you.’”
So during his thrice-weekly live address to the senior citizens — broadcast on MPTF’s Channel 22 — Beitcher decided it was time to get stern.
“I told them I never thought I’d say this, and to close their ears if they didn’t want to hear the language,” he said, referring to his F-bomb. “Compliance has been the No. 1 issue here. I don’t think it’s that people are irrationally noncompliant — it’s 87 years of going to get your mail and talking to your friends, and it’s not easy to break out of that habit if you’ve been stuck in your room and run into a bunch of people.”
Following the rules is particularly vital at MPTF, where already 16 residents have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and another three, including actor Allen Garfield and longtime Disney animator Ann Sullivan, have died from it. Elderly citizens with underlying health conditions are at greater risk for contracting the coronavirus, and more than 120 nursing and communal living facilities in Los Angeles County are already dealing with infections. On Tuesday, L.A. County public health director Dr. Barbara Ferrer even suggested it would be “perfectly appropriate” to move loved ones out of such locations to maintain their health.
But beyond maintaining the physical well-being of its inhabitants, MPTF has also been particularly concerned about residents’ mental health. Which is why, shortly after the campus went into lockdown, Jennifer Clymer — who runs Channel 22 — suggested using the television station as a way to forge ongoing social connections.
Since its inception in 2006, Channel 22 has offered round-the-clock programming to MPTF, and about half of its content is created by those on campus. The offerings include weekly announcements, an interview series highlighting the industry backstories of residents, short films and black-box sketches. Clymer entertains every pitch and does her “utmost to say yes to everything,” though she frequently has to tell would-be political contributors to start a YouTube channel instead of sharing their issue-driven views on the station. (MPTF is a donation-driven organization, and Clymer is careful to avoid programming that would alienate potential donors.)
When the novel coronavirus began to sweep through Southern California, Clymer suggested that Channel 22 pivot to live streaming three days a week, eight hours a day.
“My question was, if we have to make sure people are physically distancing, how do we make sure they are still socially connecting?” Clymer recalled. “How do we make it so that people are still getting the information that people are getting from Channel 22 and understand their creative voice is still valid even though they can’t physically be near one another? Regardless of bingo being canceled and their standard poker game being held off, the people they are usually interacting with are still there.”
Clymer’s first thought was to take normal weekday activities and broadcast them to the residents — things like exercise or meditation classes that would easily translate. She and her co-workers — Channel 22 employs five full-time staffers and one part-time employee — decided to convert a campus screening room into a live studio and broadcast from the theater while maintaining six feet of physical distance. There’s no hair and makeup, and a microphone boom is being used in place of lavaliers. Guests arrive by themselves to film, like Beitcher, who uses his time to address residents and answer call-in questions.
“What I’ve tried to do is to communicate what’s going on on campus and be totally transparent,” the chief executive said. “They’re staying in their rooms, so most of them aren’t experiencing the measures we’re taking to keep everyone safe. And I want them to know what’s going on in the world. I describe driving to work and what I see and I don’t see on Montana Avenue. I talk about my long walk on the bike path on Saturdays. I’m trying to keep them as in touch with the world as they knew it as possible.”
Because many at MPTF have professional industry experience, Clymer said, a handful of residents have editing software on their computers that allows them to continue to create content from their homes. But she and her staff have also been placing instructional calls to those with phones or laptops and teaching them how to install Zoom. For those who don’t have cameras embedded in their personal technology, Channel 22 has six iPads that they’ve been lending out encased in a rubberized cover that is easier to disinfect.
Harry Northup, a 79-year-old actor who appeared in films including “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver,” had been an active participant in Channel 22’s programming before the quarantine. In 2018, he put together a Walt Whitman poetry reading and got off-campus friend Robert Forster to participate. So when Clymer suggested he continue contributing in the age of coronavirus, he was quick to adapt, learning Zoom from home.
“What’s happened to me — and I think a lot of us — is that this coronavirus has just yanked us into the future,” said Northup, who moved to MPTF two years ago with his late wife. “Self-isolation and the self-distancing — that gets to me. Before this happened, we would eat three meals together and always talk about shows. Now we’re told to stay a distance away from people. But I’m fine as long as I keep being involved creatively, and I think this does help people communicate and keep in touch.”
To keep his mind active, Northup decided to create another poetry segment from home. He selected 15 of Robert Frost’s poems, wrote up a quick biography of the poet and teamed with another actor on campus, Brett Hadley, to appear with him on the broadcast.
“After it aired, I felt the same as I did as working on a good day. It just lifts me up and exalts me,” Northup said. “Every time you turn on the TV, there are facts about how to deal with COVID-19. And that’s fine. But for me, you still need that creativity that will lift you up through whatever you’re going through.”
Clymer, meanwhile, has been soliciting “Digital Angel Cards” — short video messages that outsiders can send in to let the residents know they’re being thought of. So far, she’s collected shout-outs from the likes of Steve Guttenberg, Tony Goldwyn and Yvette Nicole Brown.
Dr. Scott Kaiser, MPTF’s practicing geriatrician and chief innovation officer, said it’s important for the public to be mindful of how loneliness and isolation are affecting older community members.
“In the long term, we know that people who are chronically isolated have higher stress responses, more inflammation, higher blood pressures and even premature death,” Kaiser explained. “But when it comes to older people, those particular impacts are just more significant and the stakes are a lot higher.”
Sandy Bollinger, 77, has come to rely heavily on MPTF’s social community. She moved to the campus because her husband, publicist Henri Bollinger, was then in his 80s and needed more constant care. When he died six months after arriving at MPTF, his widow was urged by her friends to leave.
“But I never had to go to a support group because I was surrounded by people here who had gone through what I had gone through,” she said. One of her strongest ties to the community has been the Grey Quill Society, a writing group she joined that is currently gathering via Zoom on Channel 22.
That’s part of why Clymer feels such an obligation to keep the live broadcast running. She admitted that at times she’s been particularly high-strung with her co-workers about disinfecting practices around the studio because she doesn’t want anyone to fall ill.
“We are providing a little bit of a life raft for people that feel like they’re on their own,” said Clymer, who has been poking fun at herself on TV too, pulling out a wardrobe rack of ridiculous clothing and allowing residents to call in and tell her which item to try on.
Phil Gittelman, 82, hasn’t participated in the dress-up game yet. But because of his passion for dining — he normally has a Channel 22 show called “The Original Foodie” — he has called in to do a live chat with one of the owners of Musso and Frank Grill. Still, he acknowledged: “It’s been a very challenging time.”
“They’ve been firm about staying in your room, and that’s very difficult for me,” said Gittelman, who used to manage actors including Craig T. Nelson and Tony Dow. “I find myself sitting outside in the sun and making sure no one is close to me, or walking around the square. I’ve got to get out and about, but I won’t go across the street — that’s foolish. And I’m glad Bob is telling people that; I emailed him accordingly. All it takes is one wrong move.”
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