“With the decision to move to working from home, we only had a short amount of time to change how we deliver counseling services,” said Leslie Brody in regards to Jewish Family Service’s COVID-19 response. “Overnight we had to pivot to phone counseling with most clients, and audio/visual telemedicine for those clients who had access to the technology.”
Brody is the Director of Care Management and Counseling & Crisis Intervention at JFS. She said that during the pandemic, her team tries to video chat with clients, and if that doesn’t work, they call, text, or even write letters. “We mail homework for counseling sessions. We make sure they still have access to food and medicine, as well as our services, while still maintaining appropriate professional boundaries.”
She said some of the counseling staff chose to give out personal cell numbers so their clients could more easily contact them. “The counselors have to try and assess their clients without having the normal physical and emotional cues that an in-person visit provides,” she explained. “They have also had to assess each client to make sure they are a good fit for telemedicine.” She went on to say not only does the client have to be a good fit for telemedicine, so does the therapist because, “it gives the client a window into the therapist’s life.”
“This is just as new for the therapists as it was for the clients. Our staff have become experts in telemedicine, using whichever platform their clients are most comfortable with, all while having to care for their own families and deal with their own fears related to COVID-19.”
Director of Care Management and Counseling & Crisis Intervention
Jewish Family Service
Counselors had to negotiate new ethical quandaries, Brody explained. They had to increase their own skill levels to provide online counseling and find new ways to engage clients. “Remember, this is just as new for the therapists as it was for the clients. Our staff have become experts in telemedicine, using whichever platform their clients are most comfortable with, all while having to care for their own families and deal with their own fears related to COVID-19.”
Brody said many of the coping skills that she and her team helped their clients develop were no longer available to them as they became more isolated or completely homebound. That’s why they’ve been working hard to close the digital divide and help their clients access technology as a way to stay connected to the outside world.
“Instead of encouraging them to go out to do activities, we gathered a list of virtual events across the county. We then taught clients, remotely, how to engage with technology as a way to distract them from the constant negative news around COVID-19 and other stressors.”
Brody said another way therapists are now connecting with their clients is through care packages. “Those have really become a lifeline,” she said. The packages include snacks, activity books, games and puzzles, and masks and face shields. “It’s just a way to let them know they have support, and the activities help to stimulate them, keep them engaged and feeling useful, and provide a way to reduce stress and relax,” Brody said.
For the most part, clients seem to be adapting well to the changes, with client feedback being positive and appreciative. “Life doesn’t stop because of COVID-19. Clients still have to deal with death, illness, cognitive decline, missing family members and milestones, and trying to avoid getting sick themselves—all while being able to meet their own needs.”
Not only are the JFS therapists serving their existing clients in new ways, but the pandemic has brought with it an increased need for individual counseling. Still, a lack of technology and internet access remains a barrier to engagement for some. “We are working to overcome these deficits every day to deliver one-on-one care. We are also getting ready to launch a virtual caregiver support group and grief group to further support our clients.”
Brody said she has always been proud of her team, and she is impressed with the way “they have stepped up to find innovative, new ways to provide excellent client care—using best practices and strategies for remote counseling—under extraordinary circumstances.”