Thoughts as senior residences let up on lockdowns

Our 93-year-old mother’s virtual imprisonment in an assisted living apartment for almost a year has to rank among my family’s top stresses of the pandemic.  

Would Mom have been better off living with one of us? Didn’t she deserve the same care she gave her own mother at home for 17 years?

But when we moved her and our father into assisted living in August 2019, we couldn’t have known that Dad would die four months later. Or that COVID would lock down the facility less than three months after that. 

Mom coped better than I would have predicted. Her do-what’s-expected attitude serves her in this situation. I note the irony as well as the sadness: community — the selling point of senior homes, along with medical care — is the very thing missing. 

Our parents moved into assisted living on the orders of Mom’s doctor, who said she was too prone to falling and Dad too old to take care of her. It was that or hire a live-in caretaker, which they rejected. We didn’t even discuss their moving in with one of their four kids, since none of us has an extra, accessible bedroom. Besides, Mom and Dad had one another.

Although Dad wasn’t happy with the move, he was persuaded to play pinochle and cornhole, and they took all their meals in the community dining room. After Dad died unexpectedly that December, we were relieved that Mom didn’t hibernate. She went to the community rooms for meals, the rosary, music, and crafts.

Then came the pandemic, confining the new widow to her apartment, no visitors allowed. Isolation protected the building’s residents, none of whom contracted COVID. But still . . .

I wonder whether elderly people would have chosen to sacrifice companionship to prolong lives with only a few years remaining. (But not isolating would have risked others’ lives, a morally unacceptable decision.)

I wonder whether residents could have been allowed indoor, masked visitors, one or two at a time, in a controlled, sanitized environment.

I wonder whether the two social coordinators at Mom’s residence, with no social activities to organize, should have visited each resident regularly to chat. (Their services must have been needed elsewhere.)

I wonder whether there could have been a middle path, like the sit-outside-your-door, in-the-hallway bingo that Mom’s residence organized for a while and then stopped without explanation.

A couple of weeks ago, after residents and staff were vaccinated, the facility restarted a few morning activities and lunchtime meals in the community rooms. Mom welcomed spending several hours a day out of her apartment. Then everything was halted again last Tuesday because six staff members tested positive for COVID. “I’m used to it,” Mom said about another confinement. This time the lockdown should be brief. 

Researchers will surely study the pandemic’s emotional toll on residents of senior living communities. I’ll be interested in learning whether the industry thinks it could have done anything differently.

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  • I wonder whether the parents and children who have gone through these rounds of isolation will have very different attitudes about such isolations when they reach assisted living.

  • Is it naive to hope that we won't confront the issue again because there won't be another pandemic in our lifetime?

  • In reply to Marianne Goss:

    I don't think hope is ever naive. I need to hope.

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