Essay: Life at a Senior Living Community Rocked by the Pandemic

Scary moments and small joys abound at a senior living community rocked by the pandemic.
Illustration by Pete Ryan

I live at a retirement community in Anaheim, a few miles south of Knott’s Berry Farm. When COVID-19 struck last spring, our happy village turned into a ghost town for the elderly. The lockdown was swift and emphatic: No one could leave the facility, and no visitors could enter. Drop-offs for residents were accepted by gloved and masked personnel from behind the glass doors.

The 100-plus residents were confined to our rooms as the cheerful gatherings in our dining hall became a thing of the past. Three times a day, servers brought Styrofoam containers in rolling ovens to our doors. The severity of the situation was reflected in protective clothing as servers, medical technicians, caregivers, and housekeepers were sometimes unrecognizable. Elaborate face shields were worn over masks; cloth replaced hair nets; bare hands were swathed in plastic. Our devoted staff members’ voices were muffled, only eyes peering out.

Overnight, it was like being dropped in an alien land. The only socializing occasions were chance encounters in public areas, including a regimen of distasteful nose swabbing. By osmosis, we could tell our ranks were thinning. The very elderly and infirmed were conspicuously absent. In keeping with federal guidelines and good taste, we didn’t press for information about who had migrated to hospitals, skilled nursing homes, or worse.

On July 21st, I turned 75; surprisingly, it was one of the best birthdays of my life. I live here because of a pronounced bipolar disorder that responds kindly to a low-key life and effective psychotropic medication. But before that big day, I was feeling rather washed up. I received an intercom message to come to the lobby. Standing outside the glass doors, there was a cohort of family and friends, burgeoned with flowers, gift bags, birthday cake, and cards. We couldn’t talk, but we waved madly and I found it difficult to hold back the tears.   

I wasn’t the only one who got living proof we were loved by those who came to shower us with attention for a few emotional moments. Could this be true? The news media cast us as piranhas in a petri dish, but that did not deter many who missed our smiles, hugs, and laughter in spite of our wheelchairs, walkers, and an occasional oxygen tank.

Before the coronavirus, one of our greatest joys was riding in the white, orange, and blue Orange County Transportation Authority minivans where, for less than $4, we could go anywhere in the county. Go we did: shopping, hair salons, restaurants, and, of course, to see medical personnel. How we missed seeing our favorite drivers rolling out the ramp behind the glass doors to take us aboard.

As the months ticked by in 2020—March, April, May … September, October—I discovered that cabin fever is a real illness. I longed for human contact, and when a staff member came in for meals, medicine, cleaning, etc., I found myself taking up too much time on their appointed rounds. Then something miraculous happened: These people became the most important aspect of my life. I observed their steady and quiet selflessness, and I fell in love with each and every one of them. My room was their stage and they each had a starring role in my life. I discovered what I was learning was a profound sense of gratitude. As the months in isolation wore on, my greatest joy was observing and acknowledging those who cared for me day in and day out. COVID-19 was turning into a subtle, but remarkable, teacher.

In mid-October, a wonderful thing happened. It seemed we licked the most contagious aspects of the pandemic and, glory of glories, we could resume gathering in the dining hall. Staff members took our temperatures and splashed our hands with sanitizer before we found a seat, two to a table with Plexiglass partitions. The mood was jovial—our favorite songs from the ’50s and ’60s rang out, and servers and staff danced through the aisles.     

At the time, it appeared it didn’t matter what was going on outside those glass doors. What was important was that we had staff members who truly loved us, and we had one another. “What? Me worry? COVID-19 tried its hand, and we won.” End of story!

But then, a few days after a raucous Thanksgiving feast, a nurse came to my room. “You tested positive for the virus,” he said stoically. My head reeled at the news that I was among the thousands infected by the thing we’d dreaded. He told me to pack lightly. “You’ll be going to a skilled nursing home this afternoon.” I had been experiencing a severe headache and other symptoms, but it was still hard to believe I had the virus.

I was among a battalion of residents delivered to a concourse with single-
person nursing stations as far as the eye could see. It was cold—meat-locker cold—to keep the spread of the virus down. Three patients were wedged into a tiny room, privatized by curtains.

My symptoms grew worse. Dehydrated, I was attached to a pole with a saline drip and unable to move for four days. My primary care physician was in touch by video, and she assured me I’d be back at my home in a month if a state employee confirmed my prognosis. It was the hardest month of my life.

Finally, on Christmas Eve, a balmy, breezy night, I stepped back into our lobby, taking in the most beautiful Christmas tree I’d ever seen. I soon discovered that our village had fared poorly during December, with a skeleton crew, exhausted workers, and residents locked down tight. Once again, meals came to the door, snapped shut as refuse was left in the hall. The encouraging news was that our residents would be done with the two-step vaccination process by the end of February. 

Amazingly, as we reach the one-year anniversary of COVID-19, one striking image from the nursing home stays with me. Spending long hours propped up in a hospital bed, looking out the windows next to me, I thrilled to a sight barely discernible among a group of old cottonwood trees. There, fluttering just for me, was a faded American flag. The words of a song I learned as a child came flooding back: “O beautiful for spacious skies … for amber waves of grain … for purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain.”

Because I carry that melody in my heart, I truly hope those who have suffered have found some peace. It was a rough time for me and many others, but I experienced an outpouring of love. I believe better times are ahead, a new tomorrow marked by gratitude.

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