From delivery of care packages and virtual exercise sessions to staff-led parades, the Franciscan Senior Health & Wellness PACE program has found innovative ways to remain connected to its clientele during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Franciscan’s Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) is a community-based healthcare program created for people 55 or older who prefer to receive their care in their own familiar surroundings.

“We work off an interdisciplinary team approach. Every participant is assigned a nurse practitioner, social worker, physical therapist, occupational therapist, dietitian, nurse and a home care coordinator. We encompass all their care,” said PACE Center Director Laurie Matthys.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the PACE Center in Dyer was a place for the program’s current census of 126 Lake County participants to gather, socialize and receive assistance with medication management and coordination of outside appointments. To limit the spread of coronavirus, the day center has temporarily limited participant attendance, challenging the PACE staff to find new ways to maintain those social ties.

“They built relationships daily, Monday through Friday, and now because of COVID-19 it’s just cut off,” Matthys said.

The change has meant directing more resources to where the participants live, everything from skilled nursing care to socialization. “Our goal is to keep them protected in their home, rather than pulling them into the day center,” Matthys added.

PACE Recreational Therapist Mary Therese Bonaguro said staff has organized several parades, decorating staff cars and notifying participants when the parade was getting close to their home so they could watch. One parade, at an assisted living facility, included family members, police and fire departments.

“They’ve been saying that they love them and they’re so thankful that they get to see people, and they know we’re trying our best and want them to stay healthy,” Bonaguro said.

Staff has also sent clients home recreation activities and organized conference calls that have lasted longer each week. “They say that they can’t wait to get back to see everyone,” Bonaguro added.

Without access to the gym in the PACE Center, physical therapist assistant Shawna Lurtz has dropped off equipment at the homes of patients and trained caregivers and family members on how to assist with physical therapy. Lurtz has also done window visits.

“I run through exercises, but most of those are for socialization, asking them what they need, asking them if they know how to do their exercises or what they’re doing to remain mobile,” she said. “They love hearing from us. I feel like they want to do their therapy more because they don’t have anything to do.”

PACE’s transportation team has made special deliveries of care package and continues to provide safe transportation to their medical appointments. “We’ve been calling them to check and make sure they have what they need,” said Transportation Supervisor Thomas Shelton. “We’ll go shopping for them, since they can’t go to the grocery store themselves. They’ve been really appreciative.”

Matthys says another challenge, now that businesses have reopened, is that many of the seniors who were being cared for by adult children are having their caregivers go back to work. PACE staff is making sure there is attendance care and support during the day, now that the PACE Center isn’t available.

“We do have patient care assistants that work in the center, five of them, who are now going into the homes.”

Jill Moranski knows firsthand how valuable PACE’s services are. Her parents, Stanley and Bonita Totos, were living with her and enrolled in the program in 2017. “Getting into that program was a godsend for us,” she said.

Stanley, who had Parkinson’s Disease, received physical therapy at the Dyer center every day. Bonita, a breast cancer survivor, would go less often, but also benefited from counseling and the meals delivered to her home by PACE. Moranski praised the care her father received as his disease progressed.

“They did activities that he liked. My dad was an avid golfer, so they put a ball on the floor, and he would putt,” Moranski said. “They tried to bring out the best in my dad.”

More recently they were in assisted living together and Stanley was battling pancreatic cancer. When Stanley hurt himself in a fall, he was placed in the skilled nursing side and Bonita would visit. But when COVID-19 hit, the facility was locked down and they couldn’t see each other.

Moranski said PACE helped her to work with hospice and get the equipment needed to reunite her parents at her home before Stanley passed away on April 23.

“It was a good experience for my parents, and my mom will remain a participant in PACE. I’m grateful that they’re in our corner.”

While helping families do their best to adjust under difficult circumstances, PACE is also looking toward the eventual reopening of its center following the state’s reopening guidelines. At the end of June, staff returned to the Franciscan Senior Health & Wellness facilities, where services are being provided to clients on a limited basis. Last week, the social center room, previously a hive of activity, was silent, except for some staff members sewing face masks.

Matthys knows that bringing this frail population together in the same room again will be a challenge. “We’re going to have to structure things differently,” she said.

Matthys is also looking forward to expanding PACE’s services to even more seniors in Northwest Indiana. PACE is currently developing a center in Michigan City at the former Franciscan Health hospital on Homer Street, which will open in 2021. That location will serve seniors in LaPorte County and parts of Porter and St. Joseph counties.

For more information about PACE, go online at, or call (844) 817-7223.