Benny Medina is a natural entertainer. With her long, dark curls, huge smile and colorful acrylic nails, you feel her playful presence immediately; her infectious laugh echoing in every room she enters. She loves iced coffee and bold fashion and singing while she works but, most of all, Medina loves her residents.
As the activities director of a senior living community, her job is to be the heart and soul – the very energy of her building. Before the pandemic, that meant planning live entertainment, outdoor excursions and interactive games for her residents. Now, with restrictions from the CDC in place to protect the vulnerable elders from the coronavirus, Medina has had to shift her focus to keeping the seniors engaged while keeping them safe.
Valley Vista Senior Living Community is nestled in the heart of Van Nuys, a new independent and assisted living building for seniors. The community, which includes memory care services, opened its doors in May – amid the pandemic, when social distancing requirements were at their most strict. As the Vibrant Life coordinator, tasked with packing the schedule with things to do, Medina created an original calendar for the building’s activities that was quickly abandoned in the wake of the coronavirus.
“Normally, we’d have outside trips. Religious services, shopping days, even just walks around the neighborhood,” Medina said. “Now, it has been a matter of getting creative.”
Medina and her staff try to keep up morale for the seniors by hosting games from the hallways and navigating technology like FaceTime for them, or scheduling the occasional visit from a local musician to perform from a safe distance. However, the most popular activity has been Themed Thursday. What started as a birthday celebration for a resident, surprising a lifelong fan of the Dodgers with baseball-themed attire and snacks, turned into a weekly event for all the residents and staff. Now, every Thursday, Medina and her team dress in costume, plan a themed meal and play socially distant activities in the courtyard.
Last week was historical figures day, where Medina dressed as Frida Kahlo, complete with an eyeliner unibrow and mustache under her mask, to play trivia games with the seniors. The week before, she dressed as Minnie Mouse and delivered meals to the residents in customized containers on which she’d written lyrics from Disney songs.
Medina, ever the performer, doesn’t stop at costumes. One of her residents is extremely fearful of becoming ill with the coronavirus; so much so that she hasn’t left her room for meals or activities in weeks. Medina makes it a point to touch base with her every day and, when she missed the scheduled entertainment on Disney Day, Medina brought the microphone to her.
Outside on the courtyard, dressed as Minnie Mouse, Medina used her 10 years of musical theater experience to make sure her resident didn’t feel left out. She sang classic Disney songs and oldies hits to the woman on the second floor through the open window, dancing along with a coworker.
Medina has been working in senior communities for more than five years. She said it takes a special kind of person to work with elders because of how much genuine empathy and compassion it takes, but the work is rewarding in ways she can’t describe. She still keeps in touch with residents from other communities she has worked in, even recently attended a Zoom birthday party for a man she worked with years ago.
With coronavirus restrictions loosening in the area, Medina’s personal life remains impacted as she ensures she doesn’t inadvertently put one of her residents at risk. She has Zoom calls with friends instead of seeing them in person and takes socially distant hikes to exercise, but has no plans of continuing her regular social life until it’s safe for her to do so without impacting her residents.
“I’m not worried, myself, about being sick at all. I’m really not,” Medina said, her voice cracking. She hasn’t been able to hug or even shake the hands of any of the elders living her community since they moved in. For someone used to sharing bear hugs and reassuring touch, it has been a difficult change. “I’m worried that I would be an unknowing carrier and get one of my residents sick.”
For now, Medina doesn’t interact much with people outside of Valley Vista unless she has to.
“It’s not a job. It’s not,” Medina said. “It’s a career, yes. But more than anything, it’s an opportunity to genuinely care about your fellow man and help them enjoy the rest of their life and have it be the best of their life.”