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Virtual Support Groups in the Works

One month after a devastating tornado forced the shutdown of two Morning Pointe Senior Living communities in Chattanooga, associates and families of The Lantern Alzheimer’s Center of Excellence on Shallowford Road are continuing to support each other. The leadership team is planning a virtual support group as they work to stay in touch and help each other following the tornado, and in the middle of COVID-19.

Not only did they lose their memory care community, they had to say goodbye to many of their longtime residents. With limited memory care rooms available in the Scenic City, over ten had to move to a community in North Georgia. “No one wanted to go. They wanted to stay with us,” explains Alisha Landes, executive director of The Lantern at Morning Pointe, Chattanooga. For the Morning Pointe family, it was another loss. “Every day we would send someone on a bus to their new home. Some days we would send two,” shares Landes. “The Friday before I left the hotel, we sent 14. We would give them hugs, and tell them we would come see them. It was like saying goodbye over and over again. I was sad, very, very sad.”


Executive Director Alisha Landes at Embassy Suites after saying goodbye to residents

One of those residents they said goodbye to was Judy Gray. She had called the Lantern home for almost four years. Now she had to settle in a new memory care community in the midst of COVID-19, which made it even more difficult. “It’s a different apartment, she doesn’t know the care staff, several of her friends are there, but she doesn’t know that because they are not gathering. So it’s very difficult on her,” explains Janye Gray, Judy’s daughter-in-law, “We tell ourselves we can’t fix it. We just have to let it be for now. It’s bad knowing that they are unhappy and confused.”

The Grays are starting FaceTime visits this week with their mother-in-law and Janye hopes she will adjust soon. In the meantime, she holds out hope to move back to a rebuilt Lantern. That was her family. “Judy was happy there. She had friends. She had a group she ate lunch with every day. She participated in the activities. She was probably more active there than at home,” says Gray. “We really trusted them. We really did.”


Chattanooga Lantern resident Judy Gray

One of Landes’ top priorities now is continuing to support her families like the Grays. “A lot of them we were very close with,” shares Landes. “They text me throughout the day. They tell me if they talked to their loved one. They tell me, ‘I talked to mom and she wants to know when she can come back home.’”

Landes says she realizes many of her families were already struggling with the COVID-19 restrictions. Now to be displaced and have to move to a brand new memory care community has been even more isolating and worrisome. “We want to continue to help our families no matter where they are. They will always be part of our Chattanooga Lantern Morning Pointe family,” says Landes.

That includes all of her staff, wherever they are now working. Landes and her team are also focused on making sure her associates are getting the emotional support they need following the frightening tornado experience. Fortunately, many of them, like herself, are now working at Morning Pointe of East Hamilton. Including third shift LPN, Nichelle Fortson, who was the lead nurse the night of the tornado. She remembers it vividly. Nichelle was in the med room when her community took a direct hit. “After the train noise, I heard a whooshing noise and a series of booms and then when the insulation was falling, I heard a second boom and the building started shaking. The lights went out and I smelled grass. It seemed like it lasted forever. We just held each other and prayed,” shares Fortson. “My first fear was ‘were the residents hurt?’ Then, ‘Oh my God, what about my kids, my dad?’ I was afraid everything would be gone when I opened the door from the med room.”

Nichelle Fortson, lead nurse at Chattanooga Lantern, on duty the night of the tornado 

Everyone survived thanks to the quick action of Fortson, her team and many others. They all started evacuating the residents. In no time, Alisha was there to help.  “Immediately, people were just showing up, ‘what can I do?’” shares Landes. Two of them were her bosses, owners and co-founders of Morning Pointe Senior Living, Greg Vital and Franklin Farrow. “Franklin and Greg being boots on the ground within minutes, that spoke volumes,” says Landes. “It was very weird, the residents were very calm during the whole thing… at one point, a resident stood up and started singing a hymn and everyone started singing with her.”

In total, 130 residents were safely evacuated that night, 59 from The Lantern. All had survived the F3 tornado that devastated much of East Brainerd and Ooltewah. Almost immediately, the care team shifted to setting up a secure memory care community on two floors at the nearby Embassy Suites hotel. “It was about making it a health care facility,” explains Landes. “We got the supplies we needed to pass medication and give treatment. It was like restarting The Lantern in a different place.”


Night of the tornado 

With extra staff to keep a close eye on all of the residents and keep them safe from COVID-19, The Lantern team made the most of their challenging situation. “We did room service and housekeeping. We made it as if they were on vacation and tried to make it fun for them.  A lot didn’t even remember they were in a tornado,” explains Landes.

Two weeks flew by. The staff was exhausted. Many had stayed at the hotel 24/7. “I felt like I couldn’t leave until the last resident had left. I was emotionally and physically exhausted,” shares Landes. “I hated to say goodbye, but it was a load off my shoulders knowing they were all in a good place. Thank God, they are all okay. I can breathe.”

Fourteen had to move away for secure care, away from all they had grown used to in the memory community on Shallowford Road. The entire Lantern family still feels that every day. “I worry about them,” shares Fortson, crying. “I miss them.” Nichelle does find some comfort in seeing 11 of her residents daily at The Lantern at Morning Pointe of East Hamilton. “I had grown attached to quite a few of them,” says Fortson. “They smile when they see you. It’s reassurance, something familiar in a new building, a new room and some with new furnishings.”

Nichelle says she deals with grief and loss by staying busy. “I have to keep going. I can’t sit and stew and think about it.” Nevertheless, she is grateful for Alisha and the rest of her Chattanooga Lantern team. “I was already close to my staff working with me that night,” explains Fortson. “We are a lot closer. We are talking a lot. We talk about that night with each other and we try to encourage each other. It has made the Lantern family a whole lot closer.”


Chattanooga Lantern team working at Embassy Suites

“When I look back on this for me, personally, I think we got through this and we kept the residents safe. I can do anything,” smiles Landes. “It has helped me be more confident in who I am. I am stronger than I think I am and so is my staff.”

And, so is the WHOLE Morning Pointe family.  With virtual support groups in the works, the team is counting down the days until they can get back there with Judy, the Gray family and all the others who call Morning Pointe home.