Seniors are locked in again. But this retirement home found the cure for isolation blues
Despite fear and loneliness, seniors are finding ways to cope with lockdown restrictions
Ann Coady can't see her kids, but the 75-year-old Witless Bay resident doesn't sound too upset about it.
After all, she's a whiz on FaceTime.
"The other residents thinks I'm magic," Coady said with a chuckle when reached by phone from the common room of Alderwood Estates retirement home. She dials up her children every day, showing her neighbours how to work the technology — and then calls their kids, too.
Coady is one of more than 6,000 seniors in long-term and personal-care homes across the province who've been riding a roller-coaster of pandemic restrictions for almost one year. Last week, as the B117 variant spread like wildfire across metro St. John's, Coady and her neighbours hunkered down for the second winter in a row.
A wary Renee Houlihan, the centre's recreation director, tracked the outbreak with a sense of foreboding.
"My stomach clenched," she said, as the numbers began to snowball. "I knew what needed to happen."
Sealed … and delivered from harm
Alderwood closed its doors to visitors, sealing its 47 inhabitants off from the rest of the world. There would be, once again, no more outings, family dinners or group activities. Residents can leave their rooms, Houlihan tells me, but have to stay six feet apart. No hugs or hand-patting allowed.
It's all to keep them safe, she said, describing the terror of walking through the doors each morning these days, knowing the only way for the virus to breach the property is from her own body. "It's hard to work with vulnerable people," Houlihan said. "You feel the weight of the world on you."
Then there's the other, perhaps more pressing, job: keeping fear and despondency at bay.
Houlihan has refined her strategy over the last year. She schedules holiday dinners, replete with wine and romantic music from the home's resident pianist. Each morning she knocks on every door, sharing jokes and stories, playing word scrambles together.
"I have one-on-one time with everybody," she explains. "They may be isolated from their biological family, but we're all family here."
With every interaction last week, Houlihan delivered the same mantra, a recipe concocted, by now, from experience: It's only two weeks, she tells them. She starts by controlling fear, emphasizing the safety of lockdown. Then she reminds residents of the time limit to their lockdown. She finishes with a touch of hope.
It's easier this time around, she said: there's a working vaccine just around the corner.
Seniors advocate preaching patience
Public health has tightened and loosened restrictions on retirement homes in response to the pandemic's waves.
"From the very beginning there was a tremendous anxiety," recalled Suzanne Brake, Newfoundland and Labrador's seniors' advocate. As those first weeks passed, more calls flooded in, as relatives grew increasingly concerned about social isolation.
When the rules let up, allowing up to six visitors per resident, "calls fell off significantly," Brake said.
"Now," however, "everyone's frightened to death."
These people have been holding fast their whole lives.- Renee Houlihan
Brake is hearing from residents' family members who want to challenge how retirement homes have interpreted the newest public health rules. They're worried, she said, about the prolonged effects of loneliness and boredom.
Brake, though, says she has full confidence in the rules currently in place.
"Other than taking someone home," she said, "it's something we all really have to live with and be patient with. We've seen what happens to vulnerable people."
With a deadly virus outside, she said, what else can you do but hide out indoors?
"I'm asking people to be patient," she said, "and trying to be sure facilities are implementing what they had before. Virtual visits — that's what facilities need to be encouraged to do now. You can't just stop visits. This is the end of people's life. If [isolation] is all they have to look forward to, you can see why they're so despondent and afraid."
Teresa Bowes, 73, recalls last March, when Alderwood closed its doors for the first time. "I thought, 'If I lie here in this bed and torment myself, I'm going to go crazy,'" Bowes said.
Instead, she acted in themed skits with the other residents, which Alderwood posted to Facebook, where they were shared around the country.
WATCH | See how Alderwood residents had some laughs at Halloween:
"Being isolated doesn't really bother me," Bowes said. She grew up in a lighthouse in St. Mary's Bay, with no other kids around. She's used to entertaining herself.
Houlihan said that attitude is more widespread, at least at Alderwood, than outsiders might believe.
"This generation knows hard times," Houlihan said. They grew up in rugged outports, watching their fathers face the Atlantic on rickety fishing boats. They outlived wars.
"They're not as delicate as you think they are," she said. "When Dr. Fitzgerald says 'hold fast' — these people have been holding fast their whole lives."
The tight-knit group grew closer over the last year. Emotions fuel intimacy, Houlihan suggests. The anxiety, and the silly ways the home has coped with it — "All the memories have bonded us," she explained. They have each other to lean on.
The cure for the isolation blues, at least inside Alderwood, might be as simple as a shared iPhone, or the Witless Bay busker who played guitar in the driving wind and snow last winter, his hands turning purple in the cold, as residents watched through the window.
Coady and Bowes still fear the virus — moreso this time around. They'll be first in line for their vaccines. But for now, they're content being cut off.
"I welcome it," Coady said simply. "I'd rather be safe than sorry."