For the staff and residents at Frasier retirement community in Boulder, it’s Michelle McParland’s commitment to communication that makes her a hero.
That’s because for the past year, McParland has been the lodestar for nearly 500 senior residents and more than 300 staff members at Frasier as they collectively navigate the uncharted waters of COVID-19. In her capacity as vice president for health and support services, McParland has provided “a sense of calm and orderliness, a sense of optimism that we were going to get through this,” says Frasier president and CEO Tim Johnson.
“I’d say it’d be safe to call her the voice of COVID… and the ear about COVID around here,” Johnson says.
Through weekly calls with state and local public health departments, the Centers for Disease Control and sister retirement communities across the nation, Johnson says McParland was able to translate ever-changing information about the virus into digestible, regular newsletters for all Frasier residents, staff and family members — some 600 people, altogether.
“It was very obvious to us immediately that we needed to communicate and we needed to communicate regularly with our residents, with our employees and, even more significantly in some respects, with their families,” Johnson says. “Michelle took that to a new level and just made sure if we were going to communicate with them, that they had all the information we could possibly give them … as quickly as we could. And where I might have been tempted to be succinct in [newsletters], she told the full story every time. And I think in her telling the story, she created that sense of calm because people knew the details as much as we knew them.”
Frasier resident Jean Abbott agrees that McParland’s newsletters — which Abott says come as often as three times a week — are “impressive,” with stats about COVID cases and recoveries in Frasier’s various communities. Abbott and her husband, who moved into Frasier’s independent living apartments just a month before lockdown began, see McParland’s leadership through the eyes of medical professionals (who met on the first day of med school, “assigned to the same cadaver,” Abbott says). A professor emerita at CU Anschutz, Abbott is still active in the medical community, currently serving on the Governor’s Expert Emergency Epidemic Response Committee (GEEERT), helping to create guidelines on ethical questions arising from the pandemic.
In a Jan. 8 “C-Update,” as the newsletters are called, Abbott learned that the majority of Frasier’s eligible nursing staff received their first round of vaccination on Jan. 5 and 6 — a full 88%.
“They’re having hesitancy in getting vaccination agreement from health care workers in long-term care facilities around the country,” Abbott says. “Sometimes the agreement to get a vaccine is less than 50%. A woman who runs a seminar I call into once a month for Telligen, which is one of the big [quality improvement] groups for Medicare and Medicaid, wanted to know how the heck Michelle had done this, and it’s just a matter of leadership and encouragement and being feet-on-the-ground.
“But she’s also been happy to be on Zoom calls, answering all the questions from residents, and this group at Frasier is not exactly, um, mousey,” Abbott says with a laugh of her fellow residents. “They’re a pretty entitled group, but it doesn’t bother her. She can push right back and she’s happy and she always keeps her sense of humor and she keeps level about the whole thing.”
Abbott’s active lifestyle didn’t prevent her from being scared when the pandemic began: She updated her advanced directive and added notes about her choices for her kids.
“And I went and put stickers under a lot of my little kitschy things to say where I got them from, just in case anyone was curious about whether this thing came from Iceland two years ago,” Abbott says.
Of course some of that white hot panic has cooled, leaving the equally draining sense of isolation for many residents.
But McParland has worked to remedy that as well, helping secure a grant for more iPads for residents to use for video calls with family, and recently spearheading the creation of Frasier’s “Lov Pods,” cozily decorated plexiglass tents where residents can sit inside with a headset and talk to and see family members without making contact.
Johnson says McParland has honored the sacrifice of her staff as well, helping to secure extra pay for the hundreds of Frasier employees who selflessly came to work during a deadly pandemic.
“The staff has just delivered in extraordinary ways every day, every hour,” Johnson says. “They’ve just given a thousand percent even when they know that their own health is at risk.”
McParland says her job just fits her personality. After studying social work and spending some time in emergency departments, it was a stint in Hospice care that turned McParland onto her current trajectory.
“I found myself just drawn to older adults who have these amazing stories to tell,” she says. “Seniors are sort of this marginalized part of our society, where particularly nursing home residents are sort of forgotten in a lot of ways, maybe not by their families, but by the larger society. It’s actually, in my mind, a gift to be able to work with older adults as they’re in the twilight of their life, and share their wisdom and their joy and their sorrow. It’s enriched my life way more than I ever thought it would. And that’s why I do what I do.”
— Caitlin Rockett