A nursing home where vaccinations have ended offers a glimpse of what the other side of the pandemic could look like.
WHEELING, W.Va. – The day had finally arrived.
After nearly a year of confinement for residents of Good Shepherd Nursing Home – eating meals in their rooms, playing bingo on their televisions and isolating themselves almost entirely from the outside world – their coronavirus vaccinations were over and the hallways were slowly starting to wake up. .
In a first tentative glimpse at what the other side of the pandemic might look like, Betty Lou Leech, 97, arrived in the dining room early, a mask on her face, her hair freshly curled.
“I’m too excited to eat,” she said, sitting down again at her favorite table.
It has been a miserable year for American retirement homes. More than 163,000 residents and employees of long-term care facilities have died from the coronavirus, about one-third of all deaths from the virus in the United States. Infections have swept through some 31,000 facilities and nearly all have had to shut down in one way or another.
For more than a million nursing home residents, the lockdowns themselves have been devastating. Cut off from family and largely confined to their rooms, many residents lost weight and saw their ailments worsen. Some have become more and more confused. Others fell into depression and despair.
“When it comes to people’s happiness – everyone’s happiness – these social bonds are at the highest level, if not the most important thing,” said Robyn Grant, of the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care. , who said even small steps, like being able to spend more time with other residents, “would be huge.”
West Virginia became one of the first states to finish giving two doses of vaccines to the thousands of people inside its nursing homes, so Good Shepherd, a 192-bed Catholic home in Wheeling, has was among the first establishments in the country to begin. tiptoe back to normal last week.
The first day back was full of ordinary moments: chatting over coffee, wartime auctions at an afternoon auction, dice game. But after a year of loss, loneliness and turmoil, the sheer banality of it all brought joy and relief.
In the dining room, almost empty since March, tables were set with formal white linens. Red and pink garlands adorned each table. Ms. Leech greeted her friends – “Hey Peg!” – and joking with the dining room staff. When her table mate Sherry Roeser refused the sugar in her tea, Ms. Leech joked, “She’s pretty sweet!
But amid the clanging of silverware and the calming sound of jazz, the losses of the past year were felt at every table where someone was missing.
Good Shepherd closed in March, even before the virus was discovered in West Virginia. The residents went without visits with their relatives, trips to the cinema, even in the open air.
“I felt really lost,” said Joseph Wilhelm, 89, a retired priest who said he found it difficult to concentrate on prayer.
On two occasions, the nursing home attempted to relax restrictions, only to shut down again.
Sally Joseph, 85, had tears in her eyes as she spoke of being separated from her children and grandchildren. At Christmas, she looked out the window and waved to her grandson, who visited the parking lot. “It’s the hardest thing,” she said. “But then when I cry and feel sorry for myself, I think, ‘Everyone in the world has the same problem as me.’
In November, an epidemic ravaged the third floor of Good Shepherd.
Five residents died. Among them was Michael Strada, a frequent traveler who had visited 50 countries. John Strahl, who loved to fish and hunt. Marjorie Lekanidis, who was delighted to spend time with her dog. Ann Martin, who adored her church, her granddaughters and didn’t drive anywhere in particular.
Fifteen others fell ill during the outbreak, including Ms Leech. After recovering in the Covid-19 ward at the nursing home, she was feeling better, she said, and eager to return to a version of normal life, no matter how simple.
“You just have to see the people here,” she said.
On the menu for the first day back, cheese burgers and potato soup, unveiled with a slew of silver dishes.
“You look pretty good today,” Ms Leech shouted across the room to Ruth Nicholson, 79, who wore a blazer, jewelry and a headband – each in a different bold color.
“Oh, thank you dear,” Ms. Nicholson replied. “I am always dressed when we come here.”
“And you know,” she said, “I missed this place.”
Even with the vaccinations over, not everything is back to normal. Residents are allowed to socialize together again, but they are also encouraged to continue wearing masks. They are seated several meters from each other. And most of the relatives and friends still cannot come to visit.
The permanent precautions allow us to better understand the complications of reopening, well beyond retirement homes. About 20 percent of the people at Good Shepherd – mostly staff and a few residents – refused to be vaccinated, reflecting a reluctance that has been seen across the country. Cases in the surrounding county remain high. More research is needed to understand whether vaccinated people could still transmit the virus.
So it was in a socially remote labyrinth of wheelchairs that a “penny auction” took place – the first in over a year.
A crowd gathered and Vickie Henderson, an assistant business manager who had spent several hours shopping at Walmart and various dollar stores, took on the role of auctioneer as residents bid on items like cookies and a multicolored handmade quilt. “Do I hear a dime?” she cried, shaping a scarf and waving a pair of sunglasses. “Can I hear two?”
At one point, a bidding war broke out over a Snoopy stuffed animal that was playing the “Peanuts” theme song.
When Ms Leech’s moment came, she spent all of her allotted money – everyone got 10 cents – on a giant jar of cheese puffs.
In the hustle and bustle of the day there were moments of stillness.
In the hall of a stained-glass chapel, Frank and Phyllis Ellis were enjoying a quiet reunion.
Mr Ellis, 91, lives at the couple’s home in Wheeling, while Ms Ellis, 87, remains at Good Shepherd. As government rules have changed, the nursing home has begun to allow a small number of residents who seem most in need to have limited visits with their loved ones.
In 69 years of marriage, the Ellises said, they’ve never spent as much time apart as they did last year.
“We saw each other on Facebook,” Ms. Ellis said.
“FaceTime,” her husband corrected her gently.
The Ellis’ visits are short and sterile: she in a surgical mask, he in a gown, N95 mask and plastic mask. He doesn’t even think about kissing her, he said, for fear of endangering her.
When their time together comes to an end, she can’t go with him like she used to for Christmas and other special occasions.
She longs for the comforts of home, her children and grandchildren. He longs for her and even for their conjugal births.
“We were still fighting,” he said. “I miss that.”
When night fell, there was only one activity left: a game of bunco.
Before the pandemic, gambling had become a tradition after dinner: at around 7 a.m., residents gathered to roll the dice and socialize. “We’d have a snack, ice cream or something, and go to bed happy,” said Zita Husick, 95, who helped recruit players for the squad.
For almost a year they couldn’t play – the close quarters and the mix were deemed too risky. By the time they were allowed to start over, some members had become too sick to join. Others were dead.
Those who remained gathered in a circle around a table.
There was Ms. Leech, who acted as a marker and brought her cheese puffs to share with the group.
There was Mrs. Husick, who entertained with cheeky stories and returned to her gambling days with a chorus of “rolling”.
There was Peggy Foster, 82, an Afghan on his shoulders, Ralph Lucas, 84, the only man in the group, and Jean Rose, 96, who kept amazed himself with the success of his rolls.
Around and around they went, slamming and throwing the dice. “We’re a little rusty,” Ms. Husick said. The game lasted over an hour, until finally, with the clicking of the dice, there were cries of “bunco”.
“Okay girls, it was really nice playing for a change,” said Ms Leech, signaling the end of what had been one of their busiest days in a long time.
One by one, they said goodbye and left, in the elevator, back to their rooms.
Reporting was contributed by Danielle Ivory, Lauryn Higgins, Natasha Rodriguez, John yoon and Benjamin Guggenheim.