Opinion | ‘Because of You Guys, I’m Stuck in My Room’

Residents and caregivers at senior living facilities write about life during the pandemic — and trying to stay safe while facing the challenges of long-term isolation.

By Kristin Lin

Ms. Lin is a fellow with the Opinion section.

Devora Greenspon, 88, spent most of April, May and June confined to her room after residents at her long-term care facility in Toronto tested positive for the coronavirus. She couldn’t see her family and had very little human contact at all. A former special education teacher, she told me she found the isolation and loneliness of lockdown “so heartbreaking.”

She said she gets frustrated when she hears about young people flouting social distancing rules. “I think, ‘Because of you guys, I’m stuck in my room. I would like to put you in my room for a week and see how you like it.’”

Residents of nursing homes and senior living communities were vulnerable to some of the earliest Covid-19 outbreaks. They will now be among the first groups to receive vaccines. What has life been like in between? Though we couldn’t visit Ms. Greenspon’s room, we wanted to offer readers a window into nursing homes. So we asked older Americans — as well as their caregivers and family members — to write about what their lives have been like during the pandemic.

Many reflected on the trade-offs they’ve navigated, trying to stay safe while facing the challenges of long-term isolation. A selection of their stories, edited for clarity and length, follows.

M. Anne Schmitz, writing about her mother, G. Louise Schmitz, 84, Portland, Ore.

My mom isn’t able to write or read after suffering from two strokes. In addition to early-stage dementia, she has expressive aphasia, which means she has difficulty talking. In early November, we received an email from her residential care facility saying that four staff members had tested positive. Mom tested negative. But soon after, she called telling me her next-door neighbor was sick with the virus. I started planning how I could remove my mom from the facility.

The next morning, my mom called again and said, after a lot of word salad, “He’s gone.” I asked, “What do you mean, your neighbor?”

She said, clear as a bell, “He died.”

We waited until 4 p.m. for another test result, also negative, and I got her soon after. She had two bags packed and was practically running out the door — away from the boredom, loneliness, scary and confusing events, unknown staff members with covered faces.

We learned later that another neighbor, whom she knew well, also died that day. She heard this news, slumped in her chair, shielded her eyes and was quiet for about 20 minutes. I made a quesadilla for dinner, and by the time it was ready, she was stirring. She quietly dug into dinner and started talking, in her own poststroke words, about her friend.

I understood, “He was wonderful. God love him.”

Jack Cumming, 84, Carlsbad, Calif.

My wife and I live in a senior housing complex with a skilled nursing facility on the premises. Our lives are centered on the facility where we live. We are old, and so are our neighbors. Many are deep into those transitions that lead to life’s ending.

Two cultures dwell side by side in most senior care facilities. One is the staff members’ culture. They are there to do a job, often one that others would never want. They are dedicated and come to work in the face of danger, after which they go home to their families. The residents dwell in a different culture. They never leave. They have few contacts. Both cultures vary widely from one community to another, but the contrast between staff freedom and resident confinement is common. People who live in care facilities trade freedom for security.

Most difficult have been bans on visits. You may wonder whether residents just passively accept these imposed restrictions. Many do, but many don’t. It’s the same as in the general population. Walking the streets, we encounter many unmasked strangers. Are they contagious? Perhaps. They seem oblivious. Similarly, many residents ignore the rules and sneak out (“elopement” in the industry) to visit with family or friends.

Beverly Zeroogian, writing about Dorothy S., Newtown, Conn.

Dorothy lived in the nursing home where I worked for over five years. She had advanced dementia and was no longer able to walk or talk. But every day her husband, daughter and son arrived at about 12:30 to take her to the dining room for lunch. Her husband would sit on one side holding her hand. Her daughter would feed her pureed food, and her son would help Marianne and Joan, two other residents who also had challenges with feeding themselves. They were all like a family.

When Covid-19 hit, all family visits were halted. Dorothy was OK at first, already accustomed to the staff feeding her twice a day. But after a while, I think it hit her. Her family was gone. We could not tell her why or where they were. We could not reassure her, although we tried.

Dorothy slowly went downhill, and in July, she died. She is the collateral damage, the many who decline simply from the isolation and loss of routine, but most important, from the loss of the people who love them. She was one of many here, and she deserves a voice.

Debra L. Eder, writing about her mother, Ruth Eder, 92, Eatontown, N.J.

My 92-year-old mother, Ruth Eder, survived the coronavirus in a long-term care facility in New Jersey. Since recovering, she has left her room only a handful of times in the past nine months. Mom feels grateful she’s in a safe place. The same stalwart staff members have cared for her throughout the pandemic. But that doesn’t prevent her from griping — her sense of humor intact.

“You don’t know what it’s like to be in here,” she told me. “How does it feel to be wandering around in the room all day? How does it feel to be 92 and still a bitch? You don’t know what it’s like — except for being a bitch.”

Mom is showered weekly. Her uncut hair falls to her shoulders, clipped back with a child’s barrette. “I look like that Supreme Court justice,” she told me, referring to Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Mom’s days follow a routine, but it’s not clockwork: Breakfast. Get dressed. Hot chocolate. Sit in the wheelchair. Organize her tray table, bedstand. Lunch. Read.

Or, as she put it, “Waiting and waiting until things improve and I can get out of this room.”

Shari Casey, writing about her mother, Joan Slocum, 85, Woodstock, Vt.

My mother does not know that she has dementia. She does not understand why some days she does not know where she is. The isolation of the pandemic has made her dementia much worse much faster. The phone is her only stimulation most days. It is a lonely existence. She does her best to cope.

Dreams and reality sometimes blur because of the lack of stimulation. She has been adamant that she won the lottery; various cats and dogs come and snuggle with her in her bed; she has been kept awake all night having tea with a handsome Arabian prince.

My mother is fortunate that she is in an assisted-living facility that cares. It adheres to the guidelines. Unfortunately, the very rules that keep its residents physically protected do not support their emotional health. There are no easy answers.

Ruth Anderson, 81, Daly City, Calif.

We have never gone through a time like this. It is hard to go through our days, learn of hospitals full. I’ve lived in a long-term care facility for a year and a half. Life is different. I know and pray help is on the way. We must be strong and help all we can at this time. I am not able to sleep well. My mind is on the run. I am a strong lady. But for now, all we can do is wait, follow all the instructions and hope we all will pull through to be strong and have our life back. I am alone in this big world. Sometimes I wish it all would go away. But for now, I pray for all and hope life will get better for all of us.

Carol Mead, 87, Louisville, Ky.

I am counting all the days my husband Don and I have sheltered in place in our home on the campus of a retirement community since March 21. I know we’ll still be counting in 2021. But how have we survived since March? Two newspapers and a local one that has a great cartoon to start off our day. I’ve always written letters and notes, and am reaching out to many more long-lost friends and relatives. Our daily companions have become Nicolle Wallace, Rachel Maddow and Judy Woodruff on TV. And who would have thought I’d look forward to our daily 45-minute walks in our beautiful world? Seeing real, masked people, even if we can’t recognize or hear them, and of course, dogs and birds and all of nature can be the high point of our day. But oh, how we are looking forward to and counting the days until sometime in the new year when we can see our children and families and friends — unmasked, close up and sharing hugs, meals and good times again!

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