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What’s behind the renewed interest in area senior living centers
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Les and Marie Bennett work on a jigsaw puzzle Wednesday, March 341, 2021, inside the sunroom at Ashton Senior Living in Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers

Bernice Harkins began settling into her new home at Smoky Springs retirement center in Gainesville on Monday, months after the 92-year-old had broken her hip and assisted living became needed.

Reason for the delay? The COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t fading. In fact, cases were back on the rise.

For Harkins’ daughter, Donna Kemp, placement was an issue until vaccine distribution for Georgia residents 65 and older began in January.

“When mom was getting the vaccine and they were giving vaccines to all the residents that wanted them, it was time,” said Kemp, a Flowery Branch resident. “Before the vaccines, no.”

That’s also when area senior living facilities started seeing renewed interest from families wanting a safe home for their older loved ones.

Late in 2020 and early 2021 “were the worst months we had,” said Curtis McGill, owner of Ashton Senior Living in Gainesville. “The telephone didn’t even ring.”

Around Christmas, concerns rose again about the virus spreading, “scaring the heck out of people,” he said.

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Donna Kemp joins her Bernice Harkins in the dining room Friday, April 2, 2021, at Smoky Springs in Gainesville. Harkins is a new resident to the assisted living community. - photo by Scott Rogers

Cathy Ballas, general manager at Smoky Springs, had a similar experience.

“In November and December, interest was almost zero,” she said. “And then, we slowly regained some interest. … I’m signing leases as we speak.”

Also, now, “we can do tours,” Ballas said. “I can even have (vaccinated) guests join us in the dining room.”

Vaccinations is something Smoky Springs has literally celebrated.

With the second dose, “everybody was just joyous,” Ballas said. “I served shrimp cocktails and champagne.”

McGill said interest in his place spiked practically overnight.

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Ashton Senior Living resident Marie Bennett and Missy Bailey exchange a hug Wednesday, March 31, 2021, inside the Gainesville assisted living community. - photo by Scott Rogers

“All of a sudden, people started to come out,” he said. “We’ve had 10-12 calls this week.”

Nayna Parikh, owner of BeeHive Homes of Gainesville, said interest in her facility is “picking up, but there’s still scaredness in people’s minds. Families are slowly gaining confidence after the vaccine.”

And tours for prospective residents are still done carefully.

“They are scheduled when our residents are not out in the common area,” Parikh said.

For the most part, senior living places have spent the past year protecting residents from outside contact, restricting visitors, but they’ve also closely monitored residents interacting with employees. Centers have resorted to creative measures for residents to meet with family.

“Public health mitigation efforts remain critically important, especially in long-term care settings where residents may be more vulnerable to virus exposure,” says a Georgia Department of Public Health document on elderly care.

The March 15 document spells out “how to responsibly ease restrictions in long-term care facilities while COVID-19 remains in communities across the state.”

Ballas is looking forward to brighter days ahead, describing the past year as “dismal.”

“My residents are a very active and engaged bunch of folks, anyway, so it was really hard for them to be separated and not be able to move about freely,” she said. “Even after the first vaccination, you could feel some of the tension lift.”