Nursing home residents keep the holiday spirit alive as they wait for the vaccine
By Hannah Krieg
In late February, Henny Phillips turned 90 years old.
Family flew in from as far as Maine, but for Phillips it was just a short trip from her apartment at Ballard Landmark (one of the six GenCare assisted living communities in the Seattle area) to her daughter's house in Wallingford. There, her children and grandchildren spent the evening celebrating the matriarch of their family with a party Phillips described as “enormous” and “marvelous”.
At the same time, Life Care Center of Kirkland, a nursing home just a 30 minute drive from Ballard Landmark, made national news as the deadliest place in the country. In a matter of weeks, the COVID-19 outbreak in this nursing home, the first of its kind in the U.S., would kill over 30 people.
Danielle Parker, a registered nurse and one of the directors of operations at GenCare locations, sat on her sister’s couch in Billings, Montana, her eyes glued to the TV.
“I forgot where I was,” Parker said. “Why was a King County nursing home on the news in Billings, Montana?”
Though her gut instinct told her “something big” was about to happen, no one could have predicted that the tragic outbreak in Kirkland would be the first of over 91,000 lives lost among residents and staff of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities in U.S..
The COVID-19 outbreak in Life Care Center of Kirkland marked the last normal night of 2020 for GenCare residents like Phillips.
As her daughters flew back to the East coast, GenCare cut visitation, making her “enormous” and “marvelous” party the last celebration of its kind. She had no idea that her 90th birthday would be her last opportunity to hug any of her family for the next ten months.
“I remember hiding under the table at school during the second world war, I remember the polio outbreak,” Phillips said. “Nothing has prepared me for this kind of a challenge.”
During this most unusual and lonely holiday season, our most vulnerable population, their families, and their caretakers do what they can to keep the holiday spirit alive and their elderly loved ones safe.
Since March, in compliance with the Washington State Department of Health’s recommendations, much of life in GenCare communities, had to change to protect their residents whose average age is 84 years old. The four-phase system of regulations for long term care facilities are in flux and like the rest of the state, have recently tightened up as cases spike.
At GenCare Ballard Landmark, the dining room is closed, the gym and the pool are limited to one occupant at a time, bingo has become a socially distant operation through meal delivery, and all visitation must be outside, masked, and from a distance.
Dick Lootens has lived at Ballard Landmark for eight years. After he illegally left the facility in April, Lootens was completely isolated for 14 days.
“Quarantine is not fun,” said Lootens. “Everyday the walls get closer and closer.”
He has not broken any rules since. He is grateful that his daughter and her husband live nearby and have constructed something of a COVID sanctuary for him to visit safely. With the permission of GenCare, Lootens masks up to see his family under a tarp ceiling on his daughter’s patio complete with six propane heaters.
Lootens was able to spend a modified Thanksgiving with his family and plans to visit them again for his two favorite winter holidays: Christmas and his birthday this Sunday.
GenCare encouraged residents to celebrate Thanksgiving in their facility. They also asked their staff to sign an employee pledge to keep their celebrations small and local this year. As thank-you for their continued sacrifice, the company provided employees with small turkeys and pies – just enough to feed their immediate family.
Because Thanksgiving was down-sized this year, many employees came to the assisted living communities to hand out flowers to the residents who spent the holiday alone. Parker estimates that only 20 to 25 residents out of 400 across the six communities visited family that weekend. The rest were treated to a special Thanksgiving meal.
“[Staff at GenCare] have gone out of their way to be a substitute for our families who can’t come visit,” Phillips said.
Though the staff is still strategizing on the safest way to set up the menorah, Phillips is looking forward to her fifth year of lighting the candles and teaching any curious residents about the eight night celebration of Hanukkah – this time, from a distance.
Like Lootens, Phillips is fortunate to have an environment with her daughter that GenCare has deemed safe. Her Hanukkah celebration will be scaled back in order to, as she says, “respect the scientists.”
“When I was younger [Hanukkah] was always at my grandmother’s house,” Phillips said. “And now I’m the grandma and no one can eat my latkes.”
Her extended family plans to join her through Zoom (a tool she has become something of a whiz at with her standing Sunday open-call) and eat latkes from their respective homes.
Even with occasional socially distanced visits with family, there’s plenty to miss inside the Ballard Landmark community. Phillips misses socializing in the dining room, but makes up for it by swimming in the pool everyday she can.
For Lootens, it’s the group activities like the weekly sing-a-longs. New regulations make 75 singing mouths and a pianist squeezed into the library seem reckless.
“Our staff has done a really good job with changing up programming,” Parker said. “Every time we would take something away, we would try to give them something else in return.”
Lootens won’t be singing tenor in a Christmas quartet this year, but GenCare is working hard to compile a montage of family members and staff singing “Jingle Bells” in what Parker calls “a gift to [their] residents”.
Activities like the annual door decorating contest and the 12 days of fitness campaign will hopefully bring the residents some holiday cheer to wrap up a difficult year.
But the best gift appears to be the promise of a vaccine.
“We’re gearing up so when they call to come vaccinate, we are ready to go,” Parker said.
In partnership with Walgreens, GenCare is currently working through the logistics of room-by-room vaccination of their residents. Because of their vulnerabilities as elderly people living in congregate spaces, residents in long term care facilities will be among the first to be vaccinated.
The next step is educating their residents to ease any concerns about the vaccine. As of a Dec. 4 interview, the vaccine will not be mandatory for residents in GenCare facilities, according to Parker.
Phillips and Lootens have their sleeves all but pulled up for the vaccine. In the beginning of the pandemic, Phillips felt elderly folks like herself were being cast aside. She’s happy to see vulnerable populations prioritized in the distribution of vaccines.
Lootens says “[his] kids are jealous”.
Though the holidays may look a little different for residents in assisted living facilities, the coming vaccine is surely making spirits bright. For now, celebrations like Hanukkah are small for Henny Phillips, but maybe this vaccine could be something “enormous” and “marvelous” for her 91st birthday.