My weekends used to consist of seeing my mom – taking her shopping, out to eat, sometimes just spending time with her in her room.
She would spend much of her time traveling down the hallways of her nursing home, saying hi to her nurses, the other residents, smiling, being joyful, being her social-butterfly-self.
At the start of lockdown, my mom was adapting well, making jokes, telling me her frustration of what she had seen on the news; excited to go out and do errands with me once the lockdown was done.
When COVID hit, like other nursing homes, it started with one case, then overnight, it seemed to balloon to most of the residents – my mom being one.
They were already in lockdown for a month by this time. After my mom tested positive, they moved her to the COVID wing, the smiling hopeful light she once held – left. She was put in a room, unrecognizable to her.
All her stuff stripped from her room, sanitized and bagged. It was her and four white empty walls.
My mom, like many with dementia, can be sensitive to change. Any change in a routine, schedule or location can make her susceptible to delirium.
Being isolated in her room, unable to leave, increasingly made her confused. I would often visit by looking through her window.
The nurse would open the blinds, pushing her near the window, I only could make out a slight profile of her due to the dirtiness of the glass.
Pressing my phone against the glass, I would snap what would be a photo highlighting my mom’s demeanor, a way to see her clearer.
She looked tired. If confusion and fear had a face, it would be hers. Using the rooms phone, or the nurses iPad, I would speak to her. A stressful conversation.
My mom sometimes started yelling at me, saying she did not recognize anyone. Why would she? I hardly recognized them. Everyone she knew was gone, everything she owned put away. Her trusted nurses hid behind mask, goggles, hazmat yellow suits.
Eventually she was admitted to a hospital. She was there in their COVID unit for a week – released and right back in another week.
Nightly, I would speak to her, the nurses calling requesting that I talk her into taking her medication, eating, and calming down her anxiety.
After my mom tested negative for COVID, she was released from the hospital, moved back to her side of the nursing home. She was able to have more interaction and travel outside of her room down to the facilities activity room. Her confusion only slightly improved, waxing and waning between lucidity and delirium.
I now can see her again, at first it meant speaking to her with a phone behind the entrance glass window.
Now, we can both be outside, speaking to each other separated by a Plexiglass panel – or if I test negative for COVID, going inside, for 30 minutes.
Sometimes, I will visit near the end of her nap, walking over to her room and peering between the sun-worn blinds, trying to get a glimpse of her, making out her thin body covered by two blankets, appearing cold, her grayish hair falling to her shoulders.
This is our “new normal.” Let me change that: “our temporary normal,” to protect our loved ones from dying from the coronavirus.
This is something I get, something I understand –logically. But as I look at my mom, her body becoming frail, her skin paler, her mind more disoriented, I cannot help but wonder if the way we are trying to protect them is not slowly killing them in another form.
We socially distant from loved ones, we are separated by only glass, a computer screen, or unable to go into their room and see how they are, hold their hand while in pain, or hug them when they cry out due to confusion.
No, instead, they are forgotten – slowly deteriorating, melting away behind the idea of safety.
What is the solution? How do we ensure their safety, but also enable our elders to continue to live and thrive? Locking them away, speaking to them behind glass, what are the long-term mental and physical health effects?
We know from studies that for some, that are placed in a residential living, such as a nursing home, they can decompensate quicker, living only a few years after being placed. We also know, that those that have social interaction and engagement slows this probable decline.
As I walk away from peering between her blinds through the dirty, hazy window, I am reminded that I am not the only one that is going through this... no, there are thousands of families that are separated by glass.
She is my mom living this phase of her life sheltered away. I hope we find a solution – a cure, something. Because my mom, my social butterfly of a mom, is being forced back into her cocoon.
Christina McKelvy is an Ahwatukee resident.