TOWNSHEND — In college, JoAnne Blanchard planned to become an art therapist and work with children.
That plan changed.
She found that professional trajectory disrupted by a job that brought her into contact with the elder population and by her close relationship with her grandmother.
“Everyone has a reason why you get into taking care of elderly, and my grandmother was a big piece of that,” she said. But in her first job working for the Council on Aging - now Senior Solutions - she “immediately fell in love with the geriatric population,” Blanchard said.
“I love to hear their stories,” she said. “I enjoy helping them meet goals that they have set for themselves, and empowering them to remain as independent as possible throughout their lives - empowering them to have a voice.”
Blanchard is still an artist and last fall she also became the executive director of Valley Cares, the nonprofit that operates West River Senior Housing.
The organization has two buildings, one that houses 24 independent senior apartments, and the other, across the parking lot, a 40-unit assisted living facility, which is commonly referred to as Valley Cares.
“This is exactly what I'm looking for,” Blanchard said from her office in the Valley Cares building.
Blanchard described applying for the job as “serendipity” after spotting the help wanted ad.
She has yet to see Valley Cares in non-pandemic mode.
Prior to the pandemic, the building always had something going on. Residents watched movies in the downstairs common room. Activities and crafts happened in the second-floor gathering space. During mealtimes, conversations ping-ponged around the communal dining room.
Right now, Blanchard said, she and the staff are keeping an eye on residents for any symptoms of the pandemic's isolation, such as depression.
The organization has taken advantage of telehealth services with Grace Cottage Hospital, and in special instances, physician house calls. Blanchard said she has also contracted with an independent licensed social worker to meet with residents who need additional emotional or mental health supports.
Compassionate care and hospice visits have been allowed in special circumstances.
Blanchard took over at Valley Cares from outgoing Executive Director Susanne Shapiro last September, continuing to work at Valley Cares for about a month to help her successor transition into the role. Blanchard credits this overlap as a huge support.
Having spent some of her early career in Townshend, Blanchard said she felt excited, remembering how much she loved the Townshend area and community.
To learn more about the position, Blanchard reached out to former Senior Solutions co-worker Jessica Emerson, who also serves on the Valley Cares board of directors as board secretary and Grace Cottage Hospital representative.
“She told me about the job, and I immediately felt like, 'This is exactly what I'm looking for,'” Blanchard recalled. “It was amazing, like the universe is coming together and it's the right fit.”
Six months later and despite a global pandemic, Blanchard still feels lucky.
“I feel like this is an amazing community. We work hand in hand with the hospital next door, Grace Cottage,” she said. “The people are very dedicated to Valley Cares, they're always giving, and it is a close-knit family atmosphere that you just don't get everywhere.”
Lights during a pandemic
Blanchard, married with a 14-year-old son, said that she and her family love the outdoors. In her creative time, she enjoys working with watercolors and taking photographs.
She grew up in Springfield and attended Trinity College, where she earned a bachelor's degree in psychology with a minor in art.
Most of Blanchard's professional life has centered on long-term care for older Vermonters. She has held positions at the nonprofit Senior Solutions, one of five Area Agencies on Aging in Vermont, where she was a case manager.
She has also held roles with Visiting Nurse and Hospice for Vermont and New Hampshire (VNA), and she ran the Springfield Area Adult Day Service for 10 years.
Blanchard said that after leading the Adult Day program, she wanted to work in assisted living. She became a Certified Assisted Living Administrator. This certification helped land her the executive director position of the assisted living and memory care unit at Cedar Hill Continuing Care Community in Windsor.
Despite enjoying her work at the for-profit Cedar Hill, Blanchard said she missed working on “the nonprofit side of things.”
“I really felt like a fish out of water when I worked for the private sector. It didn't feel right,” she said. “What I found was, I truly missed working with the elders who were a little less fortunate, who had low income.”
Having settled into her new role, Blanchard spoke highly of the staff at Valley Cares.
Every single one of them makes a difference, she said.
“They are a light,” Blanchard said. “They provide so much care, they provide compassion, they provide hope for the residents, and they're here every day to take care of them.”
She described the army of nursing assistants, nurses, housekeeping staff, kitchen workers, and maintenance crew members who keep Valley Cares going as “very dedicated” to the residents and the organization's mission to provide affordable housing and supportive services.
“We are a collaborative team,” she said. “We're surviving this together.”
The organization has been lucky, she said: So far, no residents have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. A few staff members have, but the regular testing protocols have caught the infection soon enough that it - again, so far - has not spread to anyone else.
A part of a larger team
During the pandemic, Valley Cares has tried to keep its services as “normal” as possible, she said - not an easy feat when the facility has also needed to require social distancing and, at times, put the whole facility on lockdown to protect the residents.
In lockdown mode, no one from the public may enter the building and, at its most restrictive, residents are confined to their rooms, with activities, gatherings, and communal dining off limits.
“The pandemic has really affected the residents who live here and their families as well, because their isolation has caused some depression,” she said.
One of the hardest aspects of the pandemic, she said, is that many residents feel that the state and the wider community have not given them a say in the response measures and policies.
Blanchard feels that part of her job as the executive director is to make sure older Vermonters are not only heard but listened to. This can be hard even when there isn't a pandemic. The threat of COVID-19 has made everything more difficult, she said.
The state has tried to give guidance, she said, but its decisions end up impacting residents, and they have felt frustrated.
“And so that's been really difficult for the residents here and also difficult for the family members to not be able to come into the facility and see their loved ones,” she said.
“So we've certainly seen it take a toll on the residents for sure,” she continued. “The staff, as well.”
Still, Blanchard said, she admires the residents for their resiliency. Many have learned new self-care tools, she noted.
Valley Cares also provides services to the wider community. The kitchen prepares 38 meals a day for the Meals on Wheels program, whose volunteer drivers distribute them on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
The agency is also affiliated with the local SASH (Support and Services at Home) Program, which provides free case management and wellness nursing to people who are older than 65 and are on Medicare. Valley Cares also offers a medical equipment loaner program.
Like most health-care systems in Vermont, however, Valley Cares needs more nurses.
The Medicaid budget is never big enough to keep up with expenses, she said, voicing a concern shared over many years with The Commons by various health-care professionals affiliated with organizations such as Rescue Inc., and the Brattleboro Retreat.
Unfortunately, according to Blanchard, the state's whole long-term care system is worn down.
One surprising pandemic impact at Valley Cares has been a large number of vacancies.
According to Blanchard, the facility is unique in that it was founded to provide low-income elder housing. Approximately half of the building's apartments are designated as affordable housing, meaning that the organization can place in those units only older Vermonters who qualify as low-income.
“What we found is that we have a significant amount of vacancies because, with the pandemic, a lot of folks are not looking to move into assisted living,” she said.
“We're trying to sustain ourselves with what we currently have for residents, and our expenses continue to remain the same or go up, with COVID expenses being so costly,” she added.
As a result, Valley Cares has relied heavily on federal COVID-19 relief funds through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), as well as from donations.
Blanchard seems undaunted by the challenges facing either Vermont's long-term-care system or the pandemic.
“I'm a very positive, upbeat person,” she says. “I tackle a challenge head on. I welcome change.”
“I encourage people to build each other up, and being a part of a larger team is important to me,” Blanchard said.