Not long ago, Christie Clarke Hales stood outside an assisted-living facility in Lawrenceville and waved through the window to her 89-year-old 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 served only to further confuse her mother who has Alzheimer’s, Hales said.
The last time Hales could reach out and touch her mother was more than three weeks ago, just before places like the one where Annie Ruth Clarke lives began restricting access to visitors as a way to halt the spread of COVID-19, which seems to be more dangerous to the old and those with underlying medical issues.
Hales said it warms her heart to know her mother is being well-cared for and kept safe, but it remains difficult, considering she used to visit her almost every day, and there’s no telling how long this separation will continue.
“I am worried that we won’t even be able to celebrate her 90th birthday in May,” she said, “or maybe just through the looking glass.”
As the late, great John Prine — himself a victim of COVID-19 — told us so expressively long ago, “old trees just grow stronger and old rivers grow wilder every day,” but “old people just grow lonesome, waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello, in there, hello’”
The isolation and quarantining brought about by COVID-19 can make the loneliness of growing old even more acute.
This is the new reality for families with loved ones in assisted-living or nursing-home situations: coming to terms with being unable to visit in the same room with them or give them a hug, all the while holding their breath the virus does not slip into those facilities and spark a wildfire of infections.
Families are keeping in touch by phone, of course, and also with tools such as FaceTime, Skype and Zoom, but such methods are not available or practical for some older people, whose hearing is failing or who are not technologically adept. Even when such tools work, faces on a screen or voices in your ear cannot replace the human touch.
On the other side of the equation, without the reinforcement of family visits, those working in assisted-living facilities bear more of the burden keeping loneliness of the residents at bay and keeping spirits up, using whatever means possible.
“We play music overhead a few hours each day,” said Derrick Kendall, chief executive officer of Lucy Corr, a Chesterfield County senior community with residents in independent living, assisted living and nursing care, where there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 among residents, though one staff member tested positive. “We say it’s for the residents, but it is for the staff, too. It helps everyone get through the day. We just don’t allow the newscast overhead since the news is always leading off with a mortality report.”
Julie Young lives in Midlothian, while her mother, Iris Bush, lives at Friendship Assisted Living in Roanoke, which is now closed to visitors.
“I’m an only child, so it’s been challenging living three hours away as she’s faced several health challenges during her two years there,” said Young, who grew up in Roanoke. “COVID-19 has tripled that stress.”
Young, a friend and former colleague, was last able to visit her mother on Feb. 10. She hasn’t been able to talk to her since because her mother is hard of hearing, so phone calls are difficult even when her mother remembers to charge her phone, and she doesn’t have a computer or tablet.
“It’s heartbreaking not knowing when I’ll see her again,” Young said. “She’s 95. Time is precious.”
Cards and letters are good, of course, but Young has found a workaround on communicating more directly with her. She sends letters to her mother via email to the facility’s marketing director — “an amazing ally,” Young says — who prints them and delivers them to Young’s mother, often texting Young a photo of her mom’s reaction to receiving the letter. Last week, the activities director sent Young a video of her mom, walking and saying “Hi” to her daughter.
“She’s safe and well-cared for, but she loves company,” Young said, “and I know that being under lockdown makes her sad.”
Theresa Ronquillo’s 79-year-old father doesn’t have any particular health challenges, but living alone and quarantined away from his family, as he has in his independent-living retirement community, has been a test.
“We haven’t seen him since probably the beginning of March … when he came over for a family dinner,” Ronquillo said.
But she and her brother are still seeing him through the window of technology, having FaceTime calls every evening for a few minutes to check in: “What did you do today? What did you eat? How are you?”
It’s worked pretty well, and, in an unexpected way, she said, “We’ve gotten a little bit closer because of this.”
Ronquillo works for a nonprofit, Richmond Story House, which focuses on finding and amplifying stories in the community — an idea that might be perfect right about now.
Before COVID-19, she had been nudging her dad, during visits, to tell her stories about his childhood and his life in general.
“That kind of got interrupted because we’re dealing with so many issues, but I was thinking … ‘This could be a good time, especially for elders feeling isolated,’” she said. “Personally, I want to start asking my dad to tell me stories. Instead of just doing FaceTime and saying, ‘How was your day?’ I can say, ‘Hey, Dad, tell me about …’ Just different prompts to get him talking about his childhood because he loves telling those stories.”
Joni Albrecht and her five siblings moved their mother into a nursing home in February, just before COVID-19 changed everyone’s lives. Albrecht’s mother has been in lockdown for a month.
“Very worrisome on so many levels: the virus, the isolation, the loneliness,” said Albrecht, who lives in Richmond. Her mother is in Missouri. “I’m so far away. It’s been hard.”
Everyone else in her family is in Kansas or Missouri, which made it easier for them to visit before the lockdown. Albrecht normally went home once a month to see her mother, but nothing’s normal about these times.
The family has turned to technology — Zoom and FaceTime, through tablets the nursing home is making available to residents — to keep in touch. On a call Friday afternoon, children, grandchildren and one great-grandchild participated in the conversation with Albrecht’s mother, Barbara Astrid Lasswell.
”She loves them,” Albrecht said of her mother and the group chats.
The family also has taken an old-school approach. The siblings collected family photos and put together photo albums they delivered to the nursing home.
Lasswell, 84, lived on her own until February when a virus put her in the hospital and left her needing skilled care. The family is particularly close: Albrecht’s father died when she was 7, and her mother raised six children by herself.
Of the days of isolation, Albrecht says her mom is “getting tired of it. She’s lonely.”
At Saint Francis Home in South Richmond, FaceTime and Zoom really haven’t come into play, said Bruce Slough, executive director.
The home operated by the Catholic Diocese of Richmond is for seniors and the disabled — 50 years of age and older — with little or no income. Slough said his staff provides updates to family and friends through regular emails and a recorded message on a dedicated phone line.
But not everyone has someone checking on them.
“Sadly, we have residents who do not have close family ties that express any interest in what’s going on,” he said.
(Cards and letters are always appreciated by the residents, Slough said: 65 W. Clopton St., Richmond, VA 23225)
The average age at Saint Francis is younger than a typical assisted-living community, Slough said, and many of the 115 residents have cellphones and can talk to whomever they want and keep in touch that way.
So far at Saint Francis, no one has tested positive for COVID-19 — perhaps, in part, because it gets less outside traffic than other assisted-living facilities. Slough said the staff encourages residents to stay in their rooms as much as possible for the purposes of physical distancing.
The greatest impact has been the loss of food donations that Saint Francis relies on. (I wrote about Saint Francis and its then-new nutrition center in 2017 and the importance of food donations on the life of residents: www.richmond.com/lohmann-bounty-of-food-brings-gratitude-but-also-hurdles-for/article_f623abc7-8d8b-5d89-ae97-e0d5d8057ab0.html).
“We’re not missing meals,” Slough told me on April 2. “We just have to spend more money to get food.”
When I checked in with him again on April 10, Slough said things were looking up food-wise. Two local parishes, another retirement community and the Rotary Club have made large donations to help offset the drop in food donations. Saint Francis also had just received notice of a grant from the Regirer Foundation to help with operating issues resulting from the loss of new admissions and the increased costs of food and other supplies.
As in a lot of retirement communities, greater responsibility has fallen on staff — “I’m really proud of how the staff has rallied during this crisis,” Slough says — as many regular activities have been discontinued because of the absence of volunteers.
“We strive for emotional well-being and engagement, and all of those activities have been pretty much curtailed,” he said.
Slough also frets about the possibility of losing staff to the virus. He’s already started calling churches in the diocese asking if there are nurses in those parishes who might be willing to volunteer.
Visit www.saintfrancis.com, or call (804) 231-1043.
For her mother’s 90th birthday in March, Mariel Morgan and her family waved to her through a glass door.
“We took cupcakes, which staff members gave out at lunch,” said Morgan, whose mother, Betty Todd, lives at Discovery Village in western Henrico County. They hope to reschedule a more proper celebration once the quarantine is lifted.
“Visits from children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are the biggest source of enjoyment for her,” said Morgan, who lives in Goochland. “Seeing family helps take her mind off aches and pains, and now we are unable to see her, except through the glass front door. We all know how important hugs and loving physical touch are to positive mental attitude and happiness.”
Todd doesn’t have a computer or smartphone, mostly because family members used to visit her regularly. However, the family is setting her up with a GrandPad, a simple tablet for seniors, so she can communicate directly with her children and grandchildren.
“We hope this will be a very spirit-lifting gift for her and all of us who miss her sweet smile very much,” Morgan said.
Meantime, though, the distance seems vast and the wait long.
“I’m so sad for all of the people,” Morgan said. “It’s a long time to be without a hug.”