The COVID shutdown has changed life for all of us, but perhaps no group is more heavily hit than seniors living alone and in long-term care facilities.
Daniel Johnson, Executive Director of the Edmonds Waterfront Center, formerly the Edmonds Senior Center, sees this every day.
“Those with a partner and large circle of friends and family are managing better than those living alone,” he says. “We are especially concerned about our seniors who are most isolated. For them the pandemic has added to their anxiety, fear and depression. It’s a dangerous spiral because we know the natural response to depression is further isolation. A common response from our members is that they are tired of being cooped up.”
But being cooped up is part of the new COVID-induced reality.
In the interest of safety and containing the spread of the virus, virtually all care facilities have been confining residents to their rooms, eliminating direct, face-to-face contact with friends and family. Meals are brought to the rooms; staff typically delivers them on a tray outside the door, only entering the rooms of residents who need extra assistance, further cutting down on human contact.
“We’ve been locked in since March 15,” said 91-year-old Gerry Boursse, who has lived at Edmonds Landing for the past seven years. “I’m not the kind of person who gets depressed, but a lot of folks here are angry. For me, the key is staying occupied and keeping in touch in the ways that we can during the lockdown.”
For Boursse, this means lots of phone calls and emails with friends and family.
“My family are all in Connecticut, so the phone is our usual way to keep in touch anyway,” she added. “But I have lots of friends locally, some living in facilities in Ballard and Mountlake Terrace. These days we’re talking on the phone all the time.”
Jan Williams is a professional social worker specializing in helping Alzheimer’s and other memory-impaired clients with everyday life. With several clients at various care facilities and adult family homes in the area, she’s seen the effects of the COVID shutdown on this group first- hand, and finds it frustrating that this keeps her from personally visiting her clients.
One of her clients is a former college professor with a Ph.D in English. Now 79 years old, she is suffering from Alzheimer’s-induced dementia and living in a large assisted-care facility. Confined to her room since mid-March, she is suffering from the lack of socialization and face-to-face contact with Williams, her family and other residents.
“Judy is by every measure a brilliant woman, who has enjoyed a challenging career, a huge social network with many friends, and a vibrant life,” Williams relates. “She began showing symptoms about eight years ago. I’ve been working with her for three or four years, and over this time she’s declined significantly. Sadly, many of her fellow residents don’t understand her and avoid interacting because it makes them uncomfortable, which adds to her sense of isolation.”
Formerly able to regularly visit in person, Williams and Judy have been limited to phone conversations since the shutdown. They speak several times each day.
“Judy tends to lose contact if she doesn’t actually see me,” explained Williams. “She is very forgetful in the moment, and during our phone conversations asks every few minutes why I don’t come to see her. Each time I explain that I’m here in my apartment, she’s in hers, and there’s reasons why I can’t come to see her right now. Then a few minutes later she asks again. She gets very agitated and fearful about the situation, and sometimes it takes me an hour to calm her down.”
Another of Williams’ clients, Maureen, lives in an adult family home with five other residents.
“Maureen is very confused, but we talk on the phone regularly,” Williams relates. “She still has a great sense of humor though. For Easter I brought her a stuffed rabbit — which the staff disinfected and quarantined for three days before giving it to her. On a subsequent phone conversation, she told me she named it Nemus, Greek for a pasture or wooded area.”
Victoria Cole has been the unofficial face of Edmonds Landing for many years. While her official title is Director of Marketing, she knows each resident personally and cares deeply about each.
“We started our lockdown fairly early,” she explained. “In early March one 97-year-old resident and one caregiver came down with the virus. Both were sent out, and we immediately locked down the facility. Since then our nurse has tested all residents and staff, and thankfully all were and continue to be negative for COVID-19.
“Most are holding up OK, are understanding, and realize it’s for their protection,” she says. “But some of our residents are confused and don’t quite understand why it’s all happening.”
During the shutdown no one except staff can enter the facility, including residents’ family members. Anything that is delivered from clothing to mail to books to computer equipment is immediately sanitized, put in storage for 72 hours, and then sanitized again before giving it to the resident. Staff arriving for shifts have their temperature taken, donning masks and gowns before interacting with residents. “We’re starting to look like storm troopers,” Cole laughed.
Christine Vervitsiotis manages the mental health and wellness programs for Lynnwood-based Homage Senior Services and works directly with seniors throughout Snohomish County. Formerly able to visit her contacts personally, the COVID restrictions means she is now spending most of her days on the phone with her estimated 50 current clients.
“Initially I was surprised at how well most of my clients were doing,” she says. “Isolation is a horrible thing, and we know it’s bad for folks in so many ways. We were anticipating more calls from the elder population when the restrictions were first imposed.”
Vervitsiotis attributes this to the fact that many seniors are more accustomed to being somewhat homebound, dealing with limitations, and being dependent on others to varying degrees. Also playing into this is that many seniors share the generational value of personal independence and pride in taking care of themselves. “When offered assistance many respond that they don’t need it and it should be given to someone who does,” she said.
“But as the weeks have gone by, I’m seeing more anxiety,” she adds. “For many a large piece of this is simply fear of exposure to the infection, people worrying they could die if they leave the house.”
Overall, Vervitsiotis sees keeping a positive attitude as key to riding out the COVID crisis for seniors.
“There’s definitely a mental health/physical health connection,” she says. “Folks who are depressed tend to do worse that those who take positive steps to maintain their attitude.”
A shining example of positive attitude, Kay Major has lived in the Puget Sound area for the past 60 years, and since last year has been a resident at Edmonds Landing. Active and social, the 87-year-old Major chose Edmonds because of all the shops, coffee bars, cafes and restaurants within easy walking distance.
While she still has a car and drives, her primary outlet is walking around Edmonds. Her daily rituals normally include walking at least a mile (she keeps track on her iPhone), visiting her favorite shops (“I love Rebecca’s, the Papery and the Wooden Spoon”) where staff never fail to greet her by name, and often ending with a treat at Top Pot Doughnuts. With family and friends both near and far, she is used to regular calls and visits with a wide circle of loved ones.
But all that has changed with COVID.
Since mid-March she’s been restricted to her room, and Facetime has replaced regular visits with family and friends.
“I have a group of friends that gets together on Facetime every day at 4 p.m. for happy hour,” she says. “We pour wine or juice and just sit there and talk. It’s not the same as being physically together, but it really helps fill the void.”
An avid card player, Major meets up regularly with her Bay Area daughter and granddaughter for Facetime games.
“We’ve figured out how to play board games, 500 Rummy and Cribbage over Facetime, and it works really well,” she laughed. “Last night I won!”
And the virtual connection goes deeper than card games.
“On past visits, I’ve helped my granddaughter organize her room,” Major said. “Yesterday she actually took me on a Facetime tour of her bathroom to show me how she’d cleaned and organized it herself. She was so proud.”
Her second-floor room has a view over Dayton Street and the Marsh, with boat masts in the Marina and the Olympics as a backdrop. A special addition to her view was added last week when her daughter wrote “We Love You Mom” in huge, multi-colored chalk letters on the wall of the water treatment plant just across the street.
“My chair is right by the window, and I just love seeing that every day,” she says. “I spend a fair amount of time each day enjoying the view and watching the clouds. I’ve come to recognize many of the regular walkers who pass by, and I’m even keeping track of the various breeds of dogs they walk. But I really do miss not getting out for my regular exercise.”
While Major freely acknowledges the difficulties of being restricted during the epidemic, she also sees some positives.
“I talk more and in greater depth on the phone with friends and family since we’ve been restricted,” she says. “We share memories, attitudes, opinions — and for the most part, folks are really positive. We’re doing our best to make do with what we have.”
Major also credits the age and experience of her generation with staying positive through the COVID-19 restrictions.
“You know, our generation has been through bad times before — the restrictions we lived with during great depression and World War II showed us how to make do with what we had and find ways to enjoy life in spite of the deprivations,” she explains. “Compared to those times, this is really not so bad. I do hope we go slowly getting back to normal though. I’d sure rather wait a little longer than risk sliding back.”
When this is all over, Major says she’s looking forward to getting together with family to celebrate the birthdays they missed during the shutdown. But first she’ll walk to Café Louvre for a special drink. “The barista knows just how I like it,” she says.
— Story and photos by Larry Vogel