A Day in the Life of Pam McMahon, Life Enrichment Director
When former COVID nurse Pam McMahon had to leave the world of trauma nursing behind her, as did so many frontline workers during the height of the pandemic, she eventually found her way to Watercrest Senior Living. A match made in heaven, McMahon, Watercrest’s Life Enrichment Director, is one of those rare individuals who both truly loves her job and seems to be equally loved at her job. Here she shines, along with a dedicated team, doing the good and necessary work of caring for mostly elderly men and women with a variety of complicated needs. The work requires skill, patience, empathy, and yes, plenty of love.
I recently spent a good part of the day with McMahon at Watercrest, one of the area’s newest assisted living facilities, having been open for just about one year. While there is no “typical” day for McMahon, as the variety and measure of activities she leads knows no bounds, I did enjoy witnessing a sampling and got a better idea of just how important the work is and how it impacts the lives of Watercrest’s residents and their families. According to McMahon, taking care to give our elders and those in rehabilitation the best possible care and fulfillment has no higher calling.
I met McMahon in her Watercrest office, which is part arts and crafts supply room, and part administrative workspace. She glows when describing some of the activities and crafts that she and residents spend parts of each day doing. Part of the challenge she and the staff face is that though many residents have full cognitive abilities, are bright-eyed and cheery, and physically able to take care of themselves, others are not so fortunate and are literally on the edge of needing nursing care. A separate highly monitored memory care unit houses and takes care of those with dementia who need careful supervision. Balancing the enrichment needs of all the residents and exceeding the desires of their families is the larger mission at hand.
A 50-pound bag of dog food sits near her desk.
“We have already started gathering dog food and pet supplies for Kind Keepers, a no-kill animal shelter we support,” says McMahon, beaming as only a dog lover could - she owns a Labradoodle named Rascal. The residents regularly bake dog treats for the shelter. “And we’re going to have a kissing booth on Valentine’s Day. It costs 25 cents for a kiss with the puppies.” McMahon gets that look on her face, one I will see time and time again, where she’s on the verge of tears at the shear cuteness of an idea, whether it’s a puppy kissing booth, miniature Punxsutawney Phil dolls, or reminiscing about a recent murder mystery dinner, and her heart and soul – crafts. She is a life-long crafter and knows her way around Styrofoam mountains for a train village the residents are assembling, or compiling photos for scrapbook pages, or working a pair of pinking shears on special invitations to high tea on Valentine’s Day.
Each holiday, large and small, in a calendar year is celebrated at Watercrest, including last December’s “Noon” Year’s Eve party, complete with balloon drop, champagne and live entertainment – all meeting a crescendo at 12 noon. The countdown began at 11:59:50 a.m. and the party had wrapped up by 12:30 p.m. Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving, even Groundhog Day, where her favorite miniature Punxsutawney Phil helped in naming a lucky resident as its winner–and six more weeks of winter, all get special treatment under McMahon’s clever leadership.
But it’s not always easy…
“Valentines Day is tough, because we don’t have many couples,” says McMahon, “and so many of the residents are widowed, so we keep it light. In fact, we’re doing a High Tea for just the ladies. The men have their own activities, too, but this one’s for the ladies. We may let a few men in, though,” she laughed. McMahon finds time to laugh and smile and engage with the residents in a way few other staffers can.
Part of the High Tea celebration she’s planning includes making satin rose napkins, and cardboard tea cups as decorations. Fancy real China teacups and saucers along with savory and sweet petit fours made by the in-house chef will accompany a variety of teas from around the globe, complete with all the ceremony required of the event.
McMahon moves to the main dining room where breakfast is served. She stops to chat with a table of ladies, encouraging them to make plans to visit the Art Studio and assist with Valentine’s Day preparations, and not to miss a monthly visit later in the morning from Love on a Leash, who bring trained dogs to spend time with any of the guests who desire. Participation in any and all of the activities is encouraged but remains voluntary, with no pressure to socialize. Daily One-on-Ones ensure that even the homebodies in the group are getting daily visitations and wellness checks.
“Some residents barely leave their apartments,” said McMahon, sadly, “but others, most of them, are game for anything.” And “anything” and everything is on the table with Watercrest’s busy activities and enrichment schedule, which might include morning exercise programs, Mah-Jongg groups, Pictionary, bingo and Yahtzee, Bible studies and Sunday church services, seminars, evening and afternoon movies in the state-of-the-art big screen theater (complete with its own popcorn maker), and road trips out for bowling, fishing, shows at area theaters and other excursions. Each Thursday a “Happy Hour” in the main dining room, just before dinner is served, includes live entertainment and a choice of beer, wine, or other beverages and snacks. Karaoke is sometimes substituted and is often led by staff who encourage residents who wish to try out their voices, too.
A daily staff meeting from among the department heads is integral to Watercrest’s success. Executive Director Hunter Weaver leads the group discussion where each manager discusses the prior day’s activities and any ongoing issues. From minor maintenance concerns, like a squeaky door, to resident updates, new arrivals, and sadly, the occasional passing of a resident, this daily briefing encapsulates the tasks at hand and what’s ahead.
When it’s her turn, McMahon discusses the highlights of the previous day, outlines the current day’s activities, and briefly goes over plans for the coming days and weeks, gaining input and comment. There’s plenty of discussion about specific residents and the good news and sometimes sad news that comes with the job. It seems each resident is treated as an individual, and not just part of a larger group. The staff know their names, their quirks, their special requests and seem to respect them and dignify their lives, but there’s work to do and the staff is not daunted or stuck in meeting mode. The meeting lasts less than 30 minutes, and each department head moves on with a long list of duties. Residents are already gathering nearby, an hour early, for a 10:30 scheduled visitation from the Love on a Leash therapy dogs.
“Now we start our daily calendar,” says McMahon, handing me both a calendar for the month and one for the day I visited, something all the residents and their families have already received. In a monthly meeting with the residents, McMahon gets feedback about the previous month’s activities.
“They tell me what they liked, what they didn’t like and what kinds of things they’d like to do coming up. Family members are asked for their input, too. It’s not my calendar, it’s theirs.”
Families are a vital link to the successful stays of the residents and are kept abreast of their particular loved one’s activities constantly throughout the day, due to an ingenious App called “Sagely.” The shared App allows McMahon and other staff members to take photos, tag the residents who are part of the subject matter, and with a push of one button send real-time updates to anyone on their texting and email lists. In this way the families become a part of the day-to-day and stay connected.
“It looks like I’m always just playing on my phone,” says McMahon, “and I’m not. I’m constantly sending updates to the families, and they say they really appreciate it.”
In the dining room a few residents linger after breakfast, chatting or playing scrabble, while others visit with local or in-town visiting family members who have stopped by. They all seem to be enjoying their chats, the mid-morning daylight and blue sky beaming through the windows and Watercrest’s resort-like setting inside and out. The facility is remarkable; it’s 20-foot-tall indoor water feature is both calming and beautiful, a fireplace offers a soft glow, the marble floors shine, the dining rooms, game rooms and most common spaces have plenty of windows, and the apartments are comfortable and safe and come in a variety of floorplans. In less than one year Watercrest is approaching its maximum number of residents, with full occupancy at 98; the number of available apartments changes daily.
The facility also includes unique, clever and creative spaces for the residents and their families. A putting green, park benches, indoor and outdoor fireplaces, landscaped gardens and greenspaces and a swimming pool surround the facility, and sit just outside floor-to-ceiling windows, offering very pleasant views. Inside, a movie theater, Art Studio, hairstyling salon, gym, wellness and yoga spa (complete with salt therapy), wine bar, and the mens’ favorite, Bogey’s Cigar and Scotch Lounge, immediately make Watercrest the kind of place anyone might picture enjoying living at any age. Of course, nothing in life is free and all this attention and beauty comes at a cost; around $4,465 per month, and up, depending on the level of care required. An experienced team discusses the costs, benefits and requirements of moving in a loved one, and navigating the complicated and often stressful procedures of a major move.
Certified as a “Great Place to Work,” Watercrests’ 16 (and growing) facilities around the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic benefit from 20-years of experience from its founder, owner and CEO Mark Vorkapich, finetuning the experience to bring about satisfied family members and residents.
Some 10 or so residents have gathered in anticipation of “the puppies,” as McMahon likes to call them. Their faces light up as the volunteer staff bring in two trained and loveable Golden Retrievers who relish the attention from the residents and give back as much or more love than they receive.
“We have five dogs and one cat that live here,” says McMahaon, “sometimes it’s a zoo.” Today the therapy dogs visit and much of the staff come for a quick hello as well. “It’s a win-win,” said McMahon.
McMahon takes a moment to tell me about the previous afternoon’s Murder Mystery event, where each of the staff, in full costume, played a role, while the residents, each with an Investigators name tag, considered the clues and made final guesses as to whodunnit. Some enjoyed a glass of beer or private label wine and nibbled on an afternoon snack as they settled in for the show.
“We had about 60 residents attend,” says McMahon. “They seemed to really love it. Two of them guessed correctly. It was Grandma Winifred.”
The dogs and their handlers have moved on and we’ve reconvened in the Art Studio craft room to work on decorations for the upcoming Valentine’s Day High Tea. Just two residents participated, with a third showing up after the “puppies” had made their final farewell. McMahon showed them how to tackle making satin roses, which was no easy trick, but we all eventually made a decent version of the perfect sample McMahon had crafted earlier. The roses will be just a part of the celebration.
While there were no move-ins on the day I visited, McMahon beamed in telling me of the great lengths she and the staff go to in welcoming a new resident.
“We literally roll out the red carpet, invite other residents to greet them, have the staff gather with the new resident and their family. There are always tears.”
She describes a bittersweet moment, in that any move, especially of the elderly, can be stressful, even traumatic. The perceived loss of independence by the one being moved, the guilt sometimes felt by family who are no longer able to properly care for their loved one, and a myriad of additional, often emotional issues, culminate in this and any living arrangement transition.
“We sometimes see the new resident’s face light up at the welcome party we throw,” she says, “and we can even see relief and joy from the family seeing what a beautiful place their mother or father are moving into, and get a sense of how well they’ll be treated. It’s emotional for all of us.”
McMahon will break for lunch, sometimes by herself in her office, sometimes with other staff, and sometimes with the residents. A head chef designs a culinary treat for every meal and the dining room is run like any casual fine dining restaurant. Most all of the residents make their way in, though some opt to eat in their own apartments.
McMahon will spend the rest of her day with a few more activities such as finalizing plans for a Fat Tuesday Mardi Gras luncheon. She asks me if I know of a New Orleans style jazz band and I’m able to give her a few names.
Later she’ll work on crafting the activities calendar, which requires constant “tweaking,” and reflects a big part of her administrative tasks. A newly hired assistant is taking some of the load off, helping McMahon get to what she does best; spend time with Watercrest’s residents, sharing her love and expertise, one satin rose at a time.
Visitations are welcome. Watercrest is located at 6151 Colline Verde Way, Myrtle Beach. www.watercrestseniorliving.com and on Facebook. (843) 483-5567