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After a long year of pandemic, older Virginians finally have something they've longed for — hugs. And hope.
After a long year of pandemic, older Virginians finally have something they've longed for — hugs. And hope.
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After a long year of pandemic, older Virginians finally have something they've longed for — hugs. And hope.

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Total COVID deaths during the first year of the pandemic for the state's 10 most populous localities. 

Source: Virginia Department of Health

For what seemed like the longest time, COVID-19 kept Christie Clarke Hales separated from her mother.

Annie Ruth Clarke, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and turned 90 during their time apart, lives in a nursing home in Lawrenceville. Residents of nursing homes have been among the most susceptible to the spread of the coronavirus.

In an interview last April, Hales talked about standing outside of a window and waving to her mother.

“She was so happy, as was I, but she kept saying, ‘Come in, come in,’ and motioning with her hands,” Hales said. “That part was sad, as she could not really understand why I could not come in.”

They tried talking by phone as they watched each other through the glass, but that only seemed to confuse her mother even more.

In late fall, the nursing home began to loosen restrictions on visitors and, with an appointment, Hales was able to go into the lobby and could see her mother without a window in between, though she had to wear a mask and gown and keep her distance.

“It was better than nothing,” Hales said.

But in mid-March, with residents vaccinated (Clarke received hers in January), visits were opened even further. And for the first time in more than a year, Hales, still wearing a mask, was able to hold her mother’s hand and hug her.

“It was great,” Hales said. “I hugged her for a long time.”

***

The pandemic has been awful for so many people for so many reasons, but COVID-19 has disproportionately affected older people — more than 80% of Americans who have died of COVID-19 are in the 65-and-above age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and not only because of medical vulnerabilities, said Tracey Gendron, chair and associate professor of gerontology at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“My area of interest and research is in ageism ... and I had no idea that this global pandemic would really shine a light on it so brightly,” said Gendron, making particular note of comments last year about how “older people should sacrifice themselves for the sake of the economy.”

She cited such messages as well as societal structures as the sources of many of the issues that lead to the isolation that affects so many older people anyway, a circumstance that has been exacerbated by the pandemic, and how they “drive the way we devalue the contributions of older people. It played right out in front of us.”

Long-term care facilities, the site of deadly outbreaks of COVID-19 across the country, have been in the middle of the conversation. Such facilities provide “valuable services to people that need different levels of assistance,” Gendron said, but she believes too often it’s assumed older people want to live in long-term segregated housing when in truth they would prefer to live in their homes or within intergenerational communities.

“While long-term care is important, there is a need for us to expand home- and community-based services to meet the actual needs of older people,” she said, which could limit contact for the spread of something such as COVID-19.

The pandemic also has put on full display disparities in health care and technology that adversely affect older people, Gendron said.

However, she said, “I think there can be really positive elements that come out of this.”

“It’s really brought ageism into the mainstream consciousness, which I think is terrific,” Gendron said. “You’re not going to do something about it if you don’t see it.”

***

Bonnie Savage says her crochet hooks and hand-held loom have made a pretty unbearable year “bearable.”

She’s spent the past year making caps, baby blankets, wheelchair capes, amigurumi dolls, dementia mats, ear savers for use with face masks. “Whatever the need,” she says.

“It is very rewarding to be able to do for others even when I am quarantined,” said Savage, 76, a volunteer with From the Heart Stitchers who lives in Midlothian with her husband, Jim. “Day-to-day life hasn’t been that difficult for me.”

Staying busy and maintaining a daily routine through the pandemic has been important — household chores, exercise, yoga, walking and, of course, crocheting — when she hasn’t been able to go anywhere, with the exception of doctors’ appointments and occasional trips to the grocery store or pharmacy.

“I’m sitting here making a doll,” she said during a phone interview. Such dolls go to first responders who will distribute them to children in stressful situations. “Basically, it’s a comfort doll.”

Aside from one grown granddaughter who has gone through a process of quarantining before visiting them on occasion, the Savages have had to stay away from their five other grandchildren and great-granddaughter because of COVID-19. No hugs is hard.

“They’re growing, and we’re missing all of the wonderful birthday parties and Christmas celebrations,” Bonnie Savage said. “That’s been tough. In a child’s life, you miss six months, and you turn around they’re ... ‘Wow, you grew another foot!’ ”

However, things are looking up: The Savages received their first vaccinations in March and are scheduled for their second in early April. They haven’t seen their oldest granddaughter since February, and they have plans to visit with her again — two weeks after their second dose of the Moderna vaccine.

***

Older people who were already dealing with serious medical problems, such as cancer, have been among the most vulnerable during the pandemic.

“When you’re going through cancer, your focus should be on just getting well,” said Jervetta Burns, a volunteer with CancerLINC, a central Virginia-based nonprofit that connects cancer patients and their families with legal assistance, financial and community resources. “Now that’s compounded by the pandemic. Even before the pandemic, there was a risk of isolation and loneliness, but now it’s just amplified.”

Burns told me about three older CancerLINC clients she has worked with who have been particularly affected by the pandemic. Isolation was a problem for all, though each had other issues complicating their recovery and even their daily existence.

One man was hospitalized and needed assistance with paperwork. He also spoke with an accent, Burns said, which made it difficult for him to get the help he needed by phone as he lay in the hospital with visitation limited by the pandemic.

“I was thinking, ‘I’m this man’s one visitor for the entire day,’ ” she said. “That really just bothered me. He’s just one person, but multiply that by however many other people are experiencing that.”

Burns helped two other clients with food issues. One man typically went to a food bank, but with a compromised immune system because of cancer treatments was unable to go and stand in line, and was too weak to make other arrangements. Burns got the food he needed. A woman needed help getting groceries, too, but more specifically she was stymied by an automated phone system as she tried to secure the money she needed to buy her groceries and other things.

“She was just having a really tough time,” said Burns, who arranged a conference call to help the woman, who had been alone since the person helping her contracted COVID-19. “Just a picture of isolation.”

Burns, a risk manager at Capital One, began volunteering in a cancer ministry at her church after her husband died of cancer in 2018. Her mother died earlier this year.

“Watching my husband go through this and my mom, too ... I unfortunately have a front-row seat for what people are going through,” she said. “I found it such an honor and a blessing to be able to serve them because they should be focusing on getting well.”

Normally, she would do such tasks as pay bills for them, run errands with them or give them rides to medical appointments (which she did as a volunteer driver with the American Cancer Society), but COVID-19 has eliminated most face-to-face contact.

“That burdens me now,” she said. “How are they getting to treatment?”

***

After suffering a stroke almost a decade ago, Sandra Moss found a second home at Circle Center Adult Day Services, which aims to help people with a variety of health and disability needs live at home longer by providing a respite for caregivers.

“That place made her feel like a real person again,” said Carrie Wall, who is her sister Sandra’s primary caregiver. “She was sad, really sad. She had been a happy-go-lucky person who would help anybody do anything.”

The stroke, which left her with speech and mobility problems, changed that, and then Circle Center helped in her recovery. She was in a wheelchair when she first arrived there in 2012, and now walks with a cane or other form of assistance.

“She loves it,” Wall said of her sister and Circle Center, which she attended five days a week. “It’s been great for her.”

But then came COVID-19, and Circle Center had to shut its doors for three months, which was a huge disruption for families that depended on it. Circle Center reopened in June, but on a limited basis for safety reasons, so instead of serving 90 or more clients every day, the facility near Willow Lawn could host only a dozen participants. That number is up to an average of 25 a day, but it’s drastically changed how the center operates.

“It was a whole different world,” said Heather Turbyne-Pollard, the center’s CEO since last summer.

Before COVID-19, there was much singing and dancing and visiting with one another. All of that changed because of physical distancing guidelines.

Now, instead of gathered around a table with others, participants must be at individual tables.

Clients who tend to wander, exhibit other behaviors or have respiratory conditions haven’t returned yet because of public health guidelines as well as current staffing levels, which are less due to revenue impact.

Besides isolating clients on-site, Circle Center is offering services online and keeping up with clients by phone, but it’s a difficult transition for a nonprofit designed to overcome social isolation through hands-on activity, friendship and smiles that cannot be seen through masks.

The center’s entire approach was “completely flipped on its head,” said Julie Antrim, Circle Center’s community and development director.

“Everyone is learning on the fly,” Antrim said.

Meanwhile, the well-being of participants declined without the regular camaraderie and stimulation, and the caregivers who rely on the respite in order to work at their jobs or help their children with virtual schooling or simply catch their breath are also struggling, Turbyne-Pollard said.

Moss, 64, is among those who has returned to the center, and it was so important, her sister said, because COVID-19 has changed so much else in her life, including limiting opportunities to see family members and attend church.

On top of that, Wall’s husband died last June, and another sister’s husband died two months earlier.

“Our life just changed,” said Wall, 65. “I saw changes in [Moss’] personality. We all were just under stress, especially with what happened with my husband and my sister’s husband.”

Moss’ return to Circle Center and her friends there helped make a rough situation better.

“They’re wonderful,” Wall said.

Now, Wall said she and her sister look forward to the family get-togethers they’ve been missing for the past year.

“I just want us to be able to get together again and have a big cookout somewhere,” she said.

Turbyne-Pollard believes the emergence from the pandemic has provided an opportunity for Circle Center to better articulate its services to the public.

Also, she said, the stories of families separated from loved ones and people dying alone might change the view of nursing homes and assisted living situations and might lead some people to reconsider keeping older people at home longer and using services such as adult day care to make that possible.

She predicts a “substantial change in systems that address the care of aging individuals.

“For many years, those of us working in aging services have felt the larger call to address structural and systemic issues affecting those we serve — with a particular focus on the issues of technology, workforce and service coordination and access,” Turbyne-Pollard said. “The pandemic only exacerbated and in some ways pushed the ‘panic button’ on all those areas of focus, making our need to address and remedy the systems and services that aging individuals need to age successfully all the more pressing ... and do the hard work of building a better, more just system of services that everyone has access to.”

***

Apart from family and friends, people kept themselves busy through different creative means.

Friends at Westminster Canterbury developed a Wiffle golf game they play together in the relative safety of the open air. Danny Witt of Henrico, who is retired, hit the road, fulfilling a quest to visit every Virginia state park over the course of the year. Birthdays have been marked with drive-by celebrations instead of families and friends gathered around a table with a cake ablaze in candles.

Such a celebration greeted Amy Meyers Krumbein, who turned 104 in February; she was one of the few who also was around for the 1918 influenza pandemic.

A big “Happy 104th Birthday” sign was erected in her front yard, and Krumbein was stationed nearby, next to a portable heater under the cover of a small tent. Friends and family drove by, tooted their horns and were treated with cupcakes and brownies.

“She was thrilled to see each one,” Cynthia Krumbein said of her mother-in-law’s reaction to the visitors.

It’s been a particularly tough year for someone as active as Krumbein, a former reading teacher who generally improved the lives of others through her work with many organizations and who used to swim six mornings a week for more than 50 years before COVID-19 hit and shut down public pools. She also enjoyed playing bridge and going to lunch with her large group of friends.

“Unfortunately, all of that stopped abruptly and we have all worked to help her deal with the loneliness and separation that everyone is dealing with,” Cynthia Krumbein said. “Mom has caregivers who are in the house with her. They make creative art programs and play cards with her, do some cooking projects together, take her for rides in the car, and for walks up and down the driveway and in the neighborhood.

“While it’s always easy to sit and watch television, we all see that Mom is much happier when she is thinking, learning and doing.”

Visits are starting to pick up now as she has been fully vaccinated, as have her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“She is still the same positive, outgoing, lively woman she has always been,” Cynthia Krumbein said.

***

People stayed engaged through all manner of personal quests and endeavored to stay connected through technology — phone, email and Zoom — and whimsy. Some made daily habits of sharing greetings, poetry and music lists.

Nancy Stallard, 86, of Midlothian posted upbeat, sometimes funny sayings on a chalkboard near a walking path around Swift Creek Reservoir (“I’m not old, I’m just 25 + shipping and handling,” read one).

“If it makes one person walking by smile, I am happy,” Stallard said.

Janet Scagnelli has kept her friends apprised of what day it is.

For Scagnelli, 68, it started last April when she realized she didn’t know what day it was, the pandemic having upended her usual routine and blurred the difference between Monday and Tuesday and all of the rest of the week.

So she wrote the day of the week on a business card and placed it on her kitchen counter.

“It helped remind me,” said Scagnelli, who made another one the next day and texted it to a friend to make her laugh. It did. “She insisted I send one to her every day.”

It grew from there.

As an artist, though, Scagnelli had more self-respect than to simply send out a plain business card with a day written on it, so she began to get creative, including all sorts of visual elements: vegetables, trinkets, whatever. Her media are photos, videos, paintings, drawings and collages as well as animated sculptures and stills made from salt dough. But somewhere in each is the day of the week.

She has about 50 subscribers whom she texts every morning. She even has a name for what she does: VeriDay, which is, as she describes it with a laugh, “a service to remind you what the heck day of the week it is.”

She even has themes: Her daily postings one recent week revolved around the Eiffel Tower. Whatever she sends out, it seems to trigger a fond memory or a funny story from someone, which serves to connect them all.

“Through this year when things got really dark, this mattered,” said Scagnelli, who lives in North Richmond and previously ran an animation company. “It became bigger than a joke.”

One of her friends said Scagnelli’s daily texts help her “greet the day,” a bit of certainty in an uncertain world.

“It seems to really bring joy to people — and to me,” said Scagnelli, who noted that even though it’s “tiny and silly,” her daily project “has kept my little artistic soul alive.”

Further lifting Scagnelli, now fully vaccinated, was a southbound trip the last week of March. First stop was Greensboro, N.C., where she reunited with her son and daughter, seeing them for the first time since last spring.

“I felt warm and thankful to have us all together,” she said.

Scagnelli’s itinerary would include a stop in Georgia to visit friends and then on to Florida to see her 85-year-old sister, whom she hasn’t seen in three years.

“My heart is actually aching to see her again,” she said.

***

Lifelong friends Ashby Roberts and Caroline “Cacky” Winfree, both 74, spent part of the pandemic being vaccine pioneers — just as they did in the 1950s as second-graders when they were part of a nationwide vaccine trial for the polio vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk.

Last fall, they eagerly volunteered for a local trial of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“We never hesitated,” Winfree said in a December interview. “People said, ‘You’re crazy to do that.’ But why not?”

In December, neither knew if they had received the actual vaccine or a placebo. They learned in January — when both became eligible by virtue of their ages for the public vaccine rollout — that both had received the AstraZeneca vaccine. Nevertheless, both elected to get additional vaccines: Roberts the Pfizer vaccine, and Winfree the one made by Johnson & Johnson.

“I was really terrified of getting sick, having had the flu three or four times in the past,” Roberts said. “I isolated from the beginning of the pandemic until I found out that I had gotten the real vaccine from AstraZeneca. Two days later, I had my first Pfizer shot. Only then did I routinely begin to shop in grocery stores and elsewhere.”

Roberts said she was surprised when she learned she had gotten the actual vaccine in the AstraZeneca trial because she “had not had a single reaction to either shot, not even a sore arm. That is why, when I learned that I could get the Pfizer vaccine in January, I jumped at the chance. Even though I was told otherwise, I just didn’t believe I could have developed antibodies without some sort of a reaction.”

She was happy to have had the chance to participate in the trial, she said, and “even happier that I had received the real vaccine. I always believed that it would be totally safe and would help eradicate this horrible pandemic. Maybe it has.”

Winfree also was pleased to have participated in the trial and felt even better knowing she had received the AstraZeneca vaccine. Still, she decided to boost her chances to avoid COVID-19 by getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as well. She was one of the first to get it when it was first made available in early March.

“I just can’t stop being a pioneer!” she said.

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