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Senior housing complex in Alexandria is opening up after COVID

Residents gather to watch an outdoor performance by Theatre L'Homme Dieu in Alexandria.

The cast of "Wonderland" performs an excerpt for residents of Grand Arbor one day in June. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)

One sunny day in late June, costumed performers took over Grand Arbor’s patio, delivering a 20-minute excerpt of Theatre L’Homme Dieu’s show “WonderLand.”

From her wheelchair in the shade, Wendy Zander watched, a delighted smile on her face.

“It was outstanding,” she said afterward. “It was just awesome.”

The performance marked a new openness in Alexandria, both for the theater, which is able to return to a normal schedule this year, and for the senior housing complex. It symbolized how far senior residences like Grand Arbor have come from the darkest days of the pandemic, when residents stayed isolated in their rooms for months.

Older adults were the most likely to get very sick from COVID, and 59% of COVID-related deaths in Minnesota were among people living in long-term care or assisted living facilities, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Staff were forced to take stringent measure to ensure safety until a vaccine became available.


Now, however, COVID numbers have dwindled as elders have become vaccinated, and campuses are opening up across Minnesota. At Grand Arbor , where residents and staff went through regular testing during the pandemic, tests are now being conducted only when symptoms occur or when someone is exposed to COVID.

Diane Knauf, who has lived at Grand Arbor for six years, used to live on Lake L' Homme Dieu and used to attend performances at the theater. It has been about that long, she said, since she has been able to attend a show.

"I loved it," she said. "I enjoyed every minute of it."

The confinement during the pandemic was difficult, she said. Not being able to visit with others was the hardest part, even though the staff did their best to keep spirits up.

"You try not to let yourself get depressed," she said. "You tell yourself this is going to be over one of these days."

She hopes COVID doesn't return in the fall, and if it's gone for good, she said she would like to burn the masks.

The last case of COVID among staff was in mid-May, said marketing manager Danielle Olson, and the last case among residents came at the end of December.

Tyler Notch, Grand Arbor's executive director, said the facility is still screening visitors for symptoms via temperature checks and asking questions about travel and exposure.


“This is something we’ve kind of settled into as our new normal," he said. "I don’t anticipate we’ll be able to move much past where we are right now.”

Grand Arbor slowly relaxed regulations. The Pioneer Grill opened again. People were able to get together again in limited numbers. They were able to remove their masks and visit. Following the performance, residents sat together inside, playing cards.

“We’re happy with the progress that’s been made,” Notch said.

Olson said "quite a few" of Grand Arbor's residents have been vaccinated, and those who aren't are asked to wear masks and maintain social distancing. That's not something anyone polices, she said, but she hopes that non-vaccinated residents follow the guidelines in order to protect their neighbors.

“Our residents and our families and our volunteers have worked hard to protect each other through all this,” she said.

Musicians have been playing at Grand Arbor throughout the pandemic, following all safety guidelines, as residents listened from their apartments. But Notch said having Theatre L'Homme Dieu perform was a unique experience.

“We thought it would be a light at the end of all we’ve gone through recently,” he said. "We thought our residents would enjoy it. The fact that they thought of us and the residents after all we went through with COVID, it was a no brainer.”

The performance of Wonderland carried a message about mental health. It included several well-known characters from Alice in WonderLand, such as the March Hare, the Mad Hatter, and Alice, but was set in a mental institution where a psychiatrist tries to "cure" them, only to come to accept not just them, but himself.


Nicole Mulder, Theater L'Homme Dieu executive director, said she was looking for a performance that would address mental wellness as communities emerge from the pandemic. The performance is a new piece by Regina Peluso, founder and artistic director of St. Paul-based Collide Theatrical.

"Regina found a way to speak to all of us," Mulder said. "The show explores mental health, friendship, teamwork and is told in a very beautiful way with familiar characters."

Performing "WonderLand" at Grand Arbor is just one way the theater is reaching out to community members that were among the hardest hit by the virus and the accompanying shutdown measures. It has a second mini-performance scheduled for July at Grand Arbor, and it also gave free admission to "WonderLand" for area health care workers. The activities were funded by grants from the Lake Region Arts Council, which were awarded after Alomere Health, Knute Nelson and Lakeland Mental Health wrote letters of support.

"We recognize that among the hardest hit emotionally are people working in healthcare and those living in community environments such as Grand Arbor," Mulder said. "Imagine what is like to live or work in a memory care unit and then add on the stress and sometimes fear living in lock down during the height of the pandemic."

The theater's theme this year is "Return to Wonder," and Mulder added, "With 'WonderLand' as the perfect opportunity as we emerge from the rabbit hole and once again gather together."

Wendy Zander watches the performance at Grand Arbor with godson John Hull. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)

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