Octo Observations: Coping with Covid in Captivity

At the risk of invoking additional Covid-19 virus fatigue, it seems timely as we begin the month of July to tell the story seen through the lens of some residents living in a retirement facility.

Just when we think the virus may be slowing down and life can START to return to normal, it rears its nasty head, and slams us all over again. Look at Florida, Texas, Arizona….too many new cases. Wear masks, please, people, they help!

Tedious time for all of us in this world. Allow me to say it feels PARTICULARLY difficult for those of us living in retirement communities which have health care centers and special care units.  We qualify as THE MOST VULNERABLE. Our staff does all it can to keep us protected, even to the point of our feeling like “Corona Prisoners.” Necessary and understandable. We are pretty smart, savvy souls and we get the rationale. Doesn’t make it easy, however. Let me tell you why……

For many months we have all tried to be good sports. We have adhered to rigid restrictions. We have only ventured from our apartments or cottages with masks on to take socially distanced, efficient forays to the grocery store or pharmacy. We have tried not to feel sorry for ourselves because we can have NO visitors, see NO family members from out of town, and cannot venture next door or across the street to a neighbor’s cottage to enjoy a glass of wine. We have, to put it bluntly, hunkered down, sucked it up and adjusted. No one here (or anywhere) wants to die of THE virus.

Yet, deaths have happened…..and after many weeks of a Covid-19 free campus, one more man died this past week. He was in health care, infected by an ailing health care worker who apparently came to work feeling puny. Doggone. Now, we learn that two more people in that same area have tested positive.

On July 9th the state will send the National Guard for yet a second visit to our facility to do a massive testing of all those living and working in the three separate health care units. “Why,” my Connecticut son asks, “are you and dad, who live in the cottages, not being tested?” Reason being we are not considered as vulnerable as those who are known to be infirm like patients in either health care of memory units…euphemistically known as Sunshine Plaza. Yet, today, I learned a rumor that ALL residents in ALL areas will be tested. GOOD. Bring it on…..

Our wonderful CNA Charles, who comes four hours six days a week decided that for his own peace of mind he would be tested earlier this week. Because of his status as an independent health care employee, he owed it to himself and his limited patients to find out if he is Covid-19 free. Praise be, Charles’ report is negative, and on Friday night we celebrated with a decadent gooey chocolate dessert!

I told Charles that these days we have to be each others’ best friends. He is the only person we can see LIVE for any length of time! Luckily we three like to laugh, enjoy many good hours together. He not only helps my sweet hubby with numerous tasks, but he makes my life ever so much easier…..even to the point that one afternoon while John was napping, Charles hauled stuff out of our garage to the attic. Next we sorted through a myriad of stuff, and disposed it so as to open up space for a new wine cooler in the garage. Yahoo….Charles also polishes silver, folds clothes, and cleans up after feeding supper to John and himself. We are richly blessed. John and I both feel more secure when he is here.

So how in the world are other people living in our  community surviving these Covid quarantine days? For those elderly widows and those confined to either memory or health care units, these are long difficult weeks. Primarily because no one can see family members. For months even spouses have been separated from each other if one had to be in health care. This is not a rule strictly for our retirement community. It is mandated nationwide.

Two first hand examples of the toll this quarantine has taken: A friend of ours in New Jersey whose wife was living in memory care unit died without his being able to see her for weeks. A dear 90-year-old ex-golfer friend of John’s was unable to spend time with his wife, who was confined to the memory unit here. She died without him by her side. For the last many years he spent six hours daily with his beloved wife, even after she could no longer speak. 

Why are all these people suddenly dying when they had lasted so long? My guess is that separated from loved ones, patients quickly deteriorated, and lost all will to live….Virtual visits cannot replace hand holding, loving hugs or gentle foot messages….so tactile and palpable. I feel deeply for all of these folks. I also feel for the staff members who  must enforce these stringent rules.

A recent WSJ article validates my theory. Its headline states, “Pandemic Led to a Sharp Rise in Alzheimers Deaths.” This hits quite close to home. To watch people we love decline is difficult in any circumstance. But think of the adult children who live out of town and cannot visit their ailing parents. Think of the grandchildren who cannot spend any time with a beloved grandparent. To be cut off from loved ones when one’s mind is taking flight is a devastating situation. All of us humans need hugs. All of us yearn to be with loved ones….lucky are those of us who can Facetime or Zoom family and friends. But fewer elderly people have the equipment or expertise to interact on that level. 

One of my widowed friends whom we have known since moving to Richmond in 1990 is a personal concern. She lives in a nearby cottage. The other day was her birthday. I called her and she told me that even though some of her widowed friends had asked her to meet outdoors, which is acceptable, she would not do it. As a lady who always prided herself on keeping herself up, she admitted she has not worn makeup since March. She said, “What is the point?”

“No way, I am not going anywhere.” So, even though we are permitted to go off campus my friend is glued to her home with curtains drawn and TV playing too many hours per day. 

That afternoon I stopped by with a little birthday cake and split of champagne which hopefully perked her up. She is not physically sick, but the prolonged effects of quarantine are draining. She is hardly alone…..With no exercise, little fresh air or interaction with neighbors, how will she and those many people like her survive many more months without negative effects? I worry, I can empathize, but I can’t fix. Sad, but true.

On the flip side, we know wonderfully active folks living here who “Make Lemonade out of Lemons.” Since I often walk late in the afternoon when Charles is on duty, I love to see residents gathered in driveways, sitting on beach chairs, enjoying a libation plus some quality social distancing interaction. Each of these folks  enrich their captivity. Each one cares about the well-being of others. 

After supper the other day our doorbell rang. There stood a lovely lady whom I liked first time I met her but have not had chance to know well. She is an active, vibrant woman…hugely talented and designer of gorgeous floral arrangements that adorn the reception areas of our Retirement facility. At one time she and her husband owned, or so I am told, a very successful flower shop in northern Virginia. Now, she shares her love of flower arranging with those of us living here! 

In her hand, was a carefully wrapped bouquet of flowers from her garden. She said, “Joy, I just want you to have these so you know I am thinking about you and your John and hoping we can have dinner together when the dining rooms open again.” Now, how thoughtful is that??? My husband and I were so touched. This random act of kindness has stayed with me ever since. I add fresh water to the flowers, and smile each time I walk by the vase that holds them. 

I think of another admirable lady who has busied herself making dozens of masks for Covid protection. How delighted she was to use her vintage sewing machine, to open a large box of leftover fabric, and get to work creating multiple masks. This lady who once had her own travel agency is in her late eighties. She has been a widow for several years, adores to travel still, and can’t wait for Covid cure so she can resume interesting trips. Although stuck at home, she refuses to cave to inactivity. She is an intrepid walker as well as a naturally gifted writer. She makes the most of her quarantine!

So we have choices as to how we manage, don’t we…We old folks know full well that our time on earth is super precious. We are in the Winter of our Lives, and we cannot squander good days, even if we cannot live them as we wish. By all means, we must keep our senses of humor. We must take comfort in each good moment, and we must dig deep into our experiences and hearts to tap into what makes not only those we love happiest but what we can do to keep ourselves from sliding downhill…A good deed each day helps.

Each time I speak to one of our grandchildren I ask what he or she believes is the most positive thing to savor when this is over, and life returns to normal. Our Virginia Beach newly nineteen-year old college sophomore Livvie told me the other day that not only is she “working from home” selling beauty products, but she is keeping a journal. “Grammy, I write down the feelings and events that I want to remember so that I can tell my children and grandchildren about the pandemic.” For Olivia, spending an unexpected hiatus from school with her parents (dad has worked at home until recently) and her younger sister Emmy Joy has been a blessing. “Emma and I are so close now,” said Livvie. And to have quality time with her busy corporate dad, “well, that has been so super.”

I love hearing these reports….I love knowing that our offspring are finding JOY in each other during a wickedly trying time of life. I love thinking that these families that we adore will harbor happy memories as well as life lessons not taught in any book. I love knowing their love and respect for each other has soared, not soured.

The other afternoon our Boston daughter and her Colorado cousin arranged a Zoom chat together with John and me. For many years our niece, after her divorce, lived in Nicaragua and ran a small resort. Now she is stateside again, and has resumed her work as a health care attorney. Not having seen this gal since her father’s death fifteen years ago was hard to believe. We picked up good vibes fast. She and our daughter were born just two weeks apart….and at the end of the call, all agreed that we must do this more frequently! Later Allison said to me, “I want to know Ce better, as she and I always got along well as little girls.” Loved those words. And the smile on Ce’s face to see her uncle, her father’s only sibling,  and the happiness for my guy to see his beloved brother’s oldest child again, well, just wonderful!

So, the moral of this story from an Octo perspective is that Covid-19 virus sucks, yes indeed. For the thousands of innocent people who have taken sick and for those whose lives have been snuffed out, may we offer a silent prayer. For those of us as yet untouched personally by the devastation of this horrid disease, count our blessings: wear our masks religiously, do all that is asked of us to adhere to the restrictions designed to protect us. At the same time, enrich someone else’s life, even for a minute. And by all means, let us pray for an effective vaccine. Life is incredibly precious. We must not waste a day feeling sorry for ourselves. Instead, reach out with eyes and hearts open. 

I cannot end without paying tribute to our brave health care workers, our Founding Fathers and our opportunity to celebrate, in whatever limited fashion, our annual Fourth of July holiday. A more fractious year to date is hard to imagine. No one ever believed that on New Year’s Eve of 2020, six months hence we would all be profoundly affected and changed. Persistent Covid-19 battles, racial unrest, riots, protests, tumultuous rancor, unemployment, unsettled minds. The list goes on….. yet in spite of our strife, we live in America, the Land of the Free, a country we love and celebrate “with amber waves of grace.” 

So, whether you are in Covid Captivity or picnicking with your families. cherish your loved ones….and for sure, God Bless America. Our lives may change, not as we might choose, but life will go on, with or without us. To quote Peter Marshall:

May we think of freedom, not as the right to do as we please, but as the opportunity to do what is right.”

Top photo: Bigstock

Joy Nevin is the author of Joy of Retirement – Live, Love, and Learn. Click to buy on Amazon.