It seems like the residents at Belmont Lifestyle Village in Auckland have been having a more action-packed lockdown than the rest of us. A lot of that is due to their activity line-up and the retirement village’s manager, Karen Martin, who decided to move into the establishment’s bubble when New Zealand moved into lockdown in March. “We have different blocks of generations and some can’t handle immediate change as well as others,” Karen explains. “You need one person to actually set down the rules in a simplified manner, so it’s not confusing, and be able to check in with everyone so they know they’re not alone.”

The older members of Belmont Lifestyle Village, where Karen has worked for 12 years, seem to have a better handle on the whole situation, she says. “People in their late 80s and 90s are teaching the younger ones how to cope, because they’ve been through polio, scarlet fever, the war… all of those isolating situations they had to go through when they were young.”

Because of her experience working in retirement homes, Karen is well aware of the mental health challenges that can occur in the older generations. She says people who move into retirement villages such as Belmont are often doing so because they felt isolated in their previous living arrangements and that’s now a risk again, with the residents having to maintain social distancing from each other, as well as not being able to see their family members.

Missing that family connection, Karen says, is a huge loss for the elderly. But she has helped them work out ways to maintain contact for those who don’t want to use video communication like Skype. “I get people to send me emails and photographs, so I can print them out and sit down and read them with the residents.” Before, Karen says, there was a lot of television, with must-sees like Coronation Street. Now, everybody is reading out their email updates from their family and whānau and comparing notes. Karen has also been asking the residents to write their own updates, as a way to open up. “I’ve asked them to do a newsletter and talk about how they feel at this time in history, that gets their feelings out on paper. They have so many activities on, to get them out of their room. But when they go back to their apartments, what are they feeling then? Now that they can’t just jump in their cars and see their families.”

The activity list, however, has been extensive. There’s Happy Hour, where staff (in masks and gloves), pour a wine for each of the residents and they stand in their bedroom doors and all have a boogie. There have been ‘designer mask’ fashion shows, with different themes, like New York, Monte Carlo and Made in New Zealand. The staff have worked out how to do a group snooker tournament – with social distancing – so that’s on the agenda. There was a communal birdie dance for Easter. Keeping things a little silly, but very creative, is a great way of keeping spirits up.

As the sole staff member staying onsite, Karen is in charge of being the one who can leave the bubble for those who can’t get out to the pharmacy or supermarket. “Am I tired? Yes,” she laughs. “But there’s so much kindness and thoughtfulness here – I get flowers and people will knock on my door and say ‘let’s have a glass of wine – I’ll sit on the petanque course and you sit on the deck.’” She’s been looking after her own mental health by reading every night – “I’ve gone through seven novels” – and taking lots of Berocca, she says cheerfully. And the residents are checking in on her as well. “They’re looking out for me, and I’ve always looked out for them. So suddenly the coin has flipped! They’re a good lot. One of them said to me the other day, ‘This is history. And we’ll just go with the flow and get through it.’”