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Nursing homes get surprise from UNI gerontology department

Nursing homes get surprise from UNI gerontology department

From the Coronavirus update Northeast Iowa series

WATERLOO – For nursing home and long-term care residents, social distancing means near complete isolation, with no visitors, no gathering during meal times and all group activities canceled.

“It’s so opposite of how we normally operate,” said Linda Bowman, spokesperson for Western Home Communities, which has about 1,125 residents in facilities across Cedar Falls, Jesup and Grundy Center.

University of Northern Iowa gerontology professor Elaine Eshbaugh, Ph.D., knew the aging population and care staffs would be hit hard by a public health pandemic. Eshbaugh has coordinated UNI’s gerontology program, the study of aging and the aging process, since 2008.

Elaine Eshbaugh

Elaine Eshbaugh

She wanted to lend a helping hand to residents and staff and let them know they are appreciated during this “very scary” time. So she launched the Nursing Home Art Box Project.

“Just having a project or something to complete gives you a sense of meaning,” she said. About 35 students and staff of the gerontology program have put together more than 42 boxes for nursing homes in the Cedar Valley, across Iowa and some in Missouri, New York, and Michigan.

“It was a good way to connect with alums out in the field that work in nursing homes and memory care communities across the country,” she said.

Each box contains 15 to 20 items to spark creativity. Some include colored pencils, adult coloring books, crochet and knitting projects, sketch pads, journals and more.


The University of Northern Iowa gerontology program is donating art boxes to area nursing homes during the coronavirus pandemic. 

More than 25 people have donated items or money to the project, including a generous gift from the Adele Whitenack Davis family, and Bill Bass, who purchased 40 boxes.

Supplies for the boxes must be easy to sanitize and disinfect and require little assistance.

“That was really important to us at this time because we really can’t put any more work on staff,” Ensbaugh said. “We put a tag on them with a heart that says, ‘We’re thinking of you’ or ‘You’re not alone. We want people to think they’re special and not forgotten about.”

Boxes have made their way to New Aldaya, Western Home, Ravenwood and Harmony House, as well as more rural areas, Sunnycrest Nursing Center, Denver Sunset Home and Accura Healthcare of Spirit Lake.

Staff at these facilities are working diligently to keep their residents safe, healthy and happy, including Stacy Roster, household coordinator, at the Western Home’s Martin Suites, which holds about 50 residents.

“It’s tough right now keeping social distance. There’s a lot of confusion,” she said.

Roster received an art box from UNI’s gerontology department last week. She said staff and residents were thrilled with the generosity.

Western Home art box

Western Home Community's Martin Suites received an art box from the Nursing Home Art Box project at the University of Northern Iowa. 

“It was a really nice surprise,” she said.

Residents at the Martin Suites have been drawing pictures and writing letters with the supplies and mailing them to family members. They also hang the artwork to brighten up their rooms.

Spirographs have been very popular, Roster said. The well-known geometric drawing toy was first sold in 1965.

“They’re handling this the best they can,” she said.

Objects can be purchased and donated online to the Nursing Home Art Box Project on the Target registry site:


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