On March 15, the assisted living facility where my mother lives went into lock-down to attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Visitation was immediately restricted to only those receiving end-of-life care. Group dining was suspended. So were all group activities.
I am a member of a cohort of daughters who are lifelines to the free world for our elders in care homes like this one. For nearly everyone, that lifeline was severed that day in March. My mother is enrolled in hospice, so I was still allowed in. What I see is taking its toll on me.
One of the things we Daughters do is decorate to mark the passing seasons. This is especially important in winter months when most residents stop going outside. Our displays provide reminders of the passing seasons for their daily strolls around the halls.
As the weeks–now months–since March 15 unfolded outside the institution, time stood still inside. The impact of all those daughter-visits gone missing gradually became visible. In mid-May, according to the displays, it was still St. Patrick’s Day.
Memos from the institution’s management advised of ongoing restrictions. We all knew, as the memos told us, that “in a long-term care setting, the potential for rapid spread can be extremely high and life-threatening.” TV news of nursing-home deaths made that clearer than any memo could.
Warmer days arrived, and residents began to be allowed outside to meet a family member or two in socially-distanced groups. Family members occasionally “chalk-bombed” the sidewalks, cheering on their elders and their caregivers.
Between the lines of the memos from management, you could read the increasing desperation. “We understand the challenges of staying in place. However, we each have responsibility to help stop the spread of the virus…. You understand that if you fail to follow the community’s rules and protocols, you are placing yourself, our residents and others in our community at higher risk. Avoid outings or limit outings outside the community to only essential outings, such as hospital or health care visits.”
I visit almost every day, grateful for my relative privilege due to the administrative exception for end-of-life. I try to bring a little joy in with me in any way I can… cookies for the staff, flowers for the front desk. My husband and I planted up a flower box outside.
Now, Summer Solstice is approaching. My heart cracks each time I walk past those St. Patrick’s Day displays. I want to see them sent to the Wisconsin Historical Society, to commemorate this pain.
There is so much I want to unsee–the Culver’s burger and milkshake consumed by mother and son on either side of a closed window. The front-desk clerk lumbering to her feet to unlock the door yet again, her desk job transmogrified into a concierge with life-and-death responsibilities. The staff wheeling the styrofoam boxed meals through the halls, which are gradually becoming stained with food-spills no one has time or energy to clean up.
This is an inhumane way to live, especially when you consider any month may be any resident’s last. It is unspeakable, and has stolen the words from my mouth.
But not from Beverly Blietz’s, who penned and read her essay for Outbreak Wisconsin, which I heard on WPR last week. Outbreak Wisconsin chronicles people’s journeys through the coronavirus crisis, exposes failing systems and explores solutions. Beverly speaks the truth about “independent living” in COVID times.
© 2020 Sarah White