My mother moved to Virginia Beach, Virginia from Queens, New York almost 19 years ago, not long after my stepfather passed away. She said she wanted a warmer climate but not as hot as Florida, didn’t want to be too far away from her daughters in New York, and thought it would be a good idea to be near her oldest sister, who had relocated to Virginia decades ago and was in poor health.
Her years in Virginia were good ones — she enjoyed her house, loved that she could hear the sound of the ocean on most evenings, and was quite happy that my husband, two daughters and I were frequent visitors.
Two years ago mom fell, broke her hip (due to osteoporosis), had emergency surgery and has been living in a local assisted living facility ever since. We decided to keep her lovely house — one block from the ocean — so everyone could visit her as frequently as possible and have a place to stay. Also, I know she secretly harbored the idea that one day she might be strong enough to return to her house.
Mom has several health issues that have made it quite hard for her to recover fully from the fall and hip fracture — COPD, diabetes, asthma, Parkinson’s, A-Fib. Last month she was hospitalized with pneumonia, something that happens far too frequently. Even though she recovered after five days on intravenous antibiotics, she returned to assisted living much weaker, with diminished mobility, and now must depend on four rotating caregivers for help, and spends most of her time in a wheelchair.
It was decided that she should go to rehab for a few weeks to receive intensive physical therapy and occupational therapy with the hope that she would get strong enough to get back to using a walker instead of the wheelchair.
Then COVID-19 happened.
Two weeks ago, my husband and I drove to Virginia from New York to attend the assessment meeting, where a decision would have been made to either transition mom back to assisted living or have her stay a few more weeks at rehab to continue with physical therapy.
On March 11th, as we were making the eight-hour trip to Virginia Beach, the news about coronavirus on NPR became increasingly dire. By the next morning, when I met with the rehab team, it was clear that the best decision would be to leave mom in rehab for a few weeks until “the coronavirus crisis passed.”
It took only a few more days before all the facilities were put into virtual lockdown to protect the most vulnerable among us — the elderly.
Now mom is quarantined in her room, as are all residents of nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other centers that care for the elderly across the country. The only people allowed to enter the building are staff and personal caregivers, including the four incredible women who rotate hours to care for mom (she’s a huge fall risk). The only way I’ve been able to “visit” with mom was to call her on her cell phone. We’d have long chats, play guessing games like “Twenty Questions” and discuss the latest news about COVID-19.
But, mom missed me and I missed her. She was becoming increasingly frustrated and a bit depressed by the social isolation. So, I came up with a simple idea — each day, sometimes twice a day, I drive to the rehab center with my husband and Pete (our dog), stand outside her room while looking through the window (thank goodness she’s on the first floor!), call mom on her cell, and we chat while looking at each other! The other day it was particularly warm so her caregiver was able to open her screened window to let us talk without our cell phones (I stood away from the window to maintain the proper social distance).
This simple idea has had a tremendous impact on her. Mom thinks it’s so funny that I have to stand outside to talk with her, even in the rain, and she loves to see my husband and dog, too. Her caregivers have told me that she’s always in a great mood after these visits and they’ve really kept her spirits up.
While we live in NYC, my husband and I have made the decision to stay in Virginia for as long as it takes for this crisis to pass, so we can keep visiting mom to cheer her up, bring special little treats and surprises (which we must pass to the staff at the main door), and advocate for her when I feel she needs medical attention.
Even though mom is confined to her room — physical therapy sessions now take place there instead of the gym — I have asked her caregivers to encourage her to walk around the room, practice getting up and down from her chair, and do arm and leg lifts while sitting.
We’re all living in a crazy, unprecedented time. The best thing we can do to help our most vulnerable — and ourselves — is to stay home, wash our hands, move your body in any way you can (I go out for a run every day), eat well, manage anxiety and stress, get enough sleep . . . and keep your eyes focused firmly on the future.
This, too, shall pass.