Last updated on May 22, 2021
Today, as I sat down to write, my mind wandered. Thoughts of the past year brought back familiar and disturbing emotions. It’s crazy to think that just over a year ago, life was normal and we had no idea what was coming. Covid19 hit the world like a ton of bricks. We were flipped upside down and inside out and thrown helter-skelter. Forever changed. And it’s not over yet.
Working as a memory care director, my first thought as news of the corona virus was reported was complete fear for my vulnerable residents living with dementia. What would the virus do to them? How could I protect them?
As more info became available, I felt sick to my stomach, angry, helpless, and sad. Listening to death reports day after day was depressing. Watching humans around the globe suffer in agony was overwhelming. Restrictions put in place to keep us safe took away choices and freedoms that most of us take for granted.
The worst hit by Covid19, in my mind, were the 17 residents living in my memory care community. They could sense something was terribly wrong even though staff and family refrained from sharing info. Already existing in a small room on a small hallway with doors and windows secured and limited access to outdoors, my resident’s links to the world were made ever smaller by the new virus. And when told family members and friends could no longer come into our facility to visit, the reality of something being wrong truly scared them.
One resident kept asking me about the “sick thingy” going on. Another wanted to watch the news, which we decided not to do, because hearing and seeing news stories would just increase confusion and anxiety. Groups of concerned residents would ask me to explain why the world was ending, why people wore masks, what was happening outside, and were they trapped forever. One man asked “Did I do something bad? Did I hurt someone?” I answered no. “Then why am I in prison?” he cried. “Please let me out or I’ll die.” We saw more tears, depression, and negative behaviors.
I could only hold a hand, give a hug, redirect the conversation, and promise I would stay with them no matter what happened. It was a tough time.
To fight the feelings of uncertainty and dread, my staff and I increased our resolve to make life peaceful, happy, productive, and fun. For example, we covered the large wall in the dining room with butcher paper and created a summer scene with fabric, lace, crepe paper flowers, fringed green paper grass, and lots of little furry animals. Each day we added something new to our mural. We’d all admire it during meals. And speculate on what would be added tomorrow.
I laminated 60 bright photos of birds and butterflies and hung them double-sided from the ceiling with thin ribbon. When the sunlight touched the laminate, the birds and butterflies seemed to come alive. The air vents made them dance. We decorated wheelchairs and walkers, made hats, and threw a party every chance we got. We ate more ice cream and chocolate than ever before. Told more jokes, and laughed. The mural project encouraged many reminiscing chats. It stayed up until Halloween because no one wanted it to be taken down.
Families, also feeling helpless and isolated, sent cards and pictures, recorded messages, and treats to stay connected. Zoom allowed us to attend family reunions, weddings, and a christening. A volunteer, who could no longer come once a week to play piano and sing favorite songs, spent hundreds of dollars on equipment then sent us hours of files of him talking to each resident, singing, and playing music. He asked the children in his neighborhood to join him in several episodes. We sang with Kurt throughout the day, hoping good memories attached to the songs and feelings of happiness would be infectious.
My staff worked long and exhausting shifts, always putting residents first. Caregivers left personal problems and worries away from the workplace. They didn’t complain or feel sorry for themselves. I am so proud and thankful for them!
Despite our best efforts–all the careful and strict rules of social distancing and isolation–Covid19 came into our community in late September 2020. I was grateful for all the days it had left us alone; but absolutely heartbroken that safety hadn’t lasted longer.
When our first resident became ill, the sadness and pain was horrible. All I could think was “this is the beginning of the end and I’m going to lose many of my sweet friends.” Covid19 spread through our small rooms and down our small hallway. We did all in our power, as a tight-knit community, to provide each person with tender care and reassurance that we would stay with and love them. Several caregivers became infected, so the remaining aids worked short-staffed shifts.
My heart ached for the residents dying without family and for the spouses, children and grandchildren who helplessly knew it and could do nothing. One of the special moments in this life is saying goodbye to a loved one. I witnessed multiple deaths without a last hug or kiss or “l love you” from those they loved most.
When you work day after week after month after year in dementia care, like I do, you become attached to your residents. And I consider them family. I love them and grieve for them. Still.
Four of our memory care friends died before Thanksgiving. One friend was Freddye, who was born in Belgium at the end of WWI. Her father had wanted a son named Freddie so much that she got the name anyway. He died in an accident when she was 5. Her mother never remarried, so she remained an only child. As a teen, Freddye lived through 4 years of German occupation. One day, she was roughly pulled off the bus, and while soldiers searched her purse and school bag, was held against a brick wall at riffle-point. She knew hunger, fatigue, fear, and destruction, but courageously survived the hardships of WW ll. Freddye met a good man who brought her to the United States. She and her husband raised 4 children. They traveled the world together, and she spoke 3 languages fluently. She was always positive and kind. Life was a gift to Freddye. My beautiful 98-year old friend died in October 2020 of Coronavirus. Freddye and I had a special friendship. I really miss her.
I don’t know anyone who hasn’t lost someone they love to Covid19.
Despite the dark days and loss of close friends and loved ones, I am thankful today for the things I have learned this year. I am stronger, more resilient, and recognize how important my work with people living with dementia is. I’m grateful for the time and special relationships I had with Freddye and other residents who’ve gone. We aren’t out of the woods yet, but I feel confident good days are ahead.
I want to honor the healthcare workers everywhere, who continually go to work, put their own lives on the line, do their best, lift the spirits of others, and save lives. Thank you!
I want to honor the thousands of informal (family/friends/neighbors) caregivers who provide unselfish, unpaid hours of exceptional service to their loved ones with dementia. The families I work with are phenomenal, and I couldn’t do my job without their support. Thank you!
In conclusion, I honor and pray for anyone who is grieving the loss of someone taken by Covid19. Be brave and keep going–you are not alone.