By Annie Prafcke
Fargo, ND – As winter’s chill and a global pandemic provide the backdrop for this holiday season, many of us are finding it difficult to feel spirited. However, for seniors residing in retirement facilities, this year’s Thanksgiving may be especially lonely.
Since March, many long-term care facilities in the Fargo-Moorhead area have restricted or closed off outside visitation, a necessary precaution for vulnerable residents. As of the morning of November 20th, COVID-19 has caused 466 deaths in long-term care facilities and 758 deaths of people 60+ in the state of North Dakota. There are currently 134 active positive coronavirus cases among residents and staff in Fargo’s 17 long-term care facilities.
Experts fear US coronavirus cases will spike if people travel and gather in groups for Thanksgiving as they did in Canada last month. The Centers for Disease Control affirm that even small gatherings can contribute to the spread of coronavirus. They state that the safest way to dine this Thanksgiving is virtually and with members of one’s own household.
Yet, as coronavirus cases continue to surge, social isolation is taking a toll on mental health, particularly for the elderly community. While quarantine is necessary to slow the spread, some studies suggest that it can contribute to depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms, which could last long-term. Some studies from the US National Library of Medicine link social isolation with lowered infection resistance, more frequent emergency hospital visits, and cognitive decline in older individuals.
Additional challenges arise for people living with memory loss who may not fully understand the situation. Grant Richardson, Senior Executive for Development and Community Relations at Bethany Retirement Living on 42nd, says residents with late-stage dementia notice their family is not visiting but often have difficulty comprehending why.
“it’s more confusing than not to try to explain something that is really unexplainable,” he says.
Richardson says in past years, families reserved common spaces in Bethany to eat Thanksgiving meals with their loved ones. However, this year, due to CDC and ND Department of Health regulations, visitors will not be allowed to dine in the building. While a Thanksgiving meal will still be provided and delivered to residents, he says the mood will not be the same.
He adds that Community Life staff have done an excellent job planning socially-distanced and virtual events, but he believes the decreased social interaction is affecting the mental health of residents.
“. . . not being able to have engagement with family members or with other residents that you’ve come to know, or even staff members is hard,” he says. “It affects your outlook, it affects your motivation, and it affects your desire to continue to do the things that you’ve been doing.”
Polly Drayton, a resident at Touchmark at Harwood Groves, will also spend Thanksgiving alone in her apartment. Her family decided it was safest for everyone to eat in their own households rather than gather together.
Drayton reminisces about the annual Thanksgiving meal served at Touchmark, where she ate with her family in past years. “It was a very nice Thanksgiving dinner – buffet style – and we could invite our family to come and everything, but it’s gonna be scaled down considerably,” she says.
Anne-Marie Fitz, Executive Director of Touchmark at Harwood Groves, affirms that the Dining Services team will prepare a hearty Thanksgiving meal of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, veggies, and pumpkin pie, which will be delivered to residents in lieu of the usual buffet.
Drayton says she understands the importance of Touchmark’s COVID-19 regulations, but she misses the social aspects of living in a retirement community. “. . . we’re kind of isolated from each other,” she says. “. . . [We’re] not mingling with the different residents any more than necessary and keeping our social distancing. So it’s just not quite as social as it used to be.”
While social distancing has been a challenge, Drayton says she appreciates the effort Touchmark’s Life Enrichment/Wellness team puts into planning safe activities for residents. She enjoys attending trivia via Zoom on Thursdays and participating in the reading program, through which staff provides her with articles to read and discuss. While Drayton looks forward to “returning to normal,” she says these precautions make her feel safer.
For isolated seniors across the country, phone check-ins from medical personnel, organization staff, and volunteers have provided necessary social contact and friendship during quarantine. Drayton says she appreciates the weekly letters that families from First Presbyterian Church Fargo write to her, a program started in mid-March to support church members who live alone.
Tracy, who asked that her last name remain confidential, started this program with her son, Eli (15), and Kayla Bones, Youth Director at First Presbyterian Church. Tracy says the group writes to about forty seniors in Fargo-Moorhead and surrounding communities weekly. She says they write about everything from school to holiday decorating to home improvement projects. For special occasions, they send treats with their letters. For Halloween, they sent packages of candy and for Thanksgiving, they will include turkey stickers.
“It’s just good to try and make everybody feel better when they’re kind of lonely and can’t really do much,” Eli says.
Becky Trumbo is another member of First Presbyterian Church who participates in this project with her kids Benji (14) and Ali (11). She says she got involved because her own 76-year-old mother, who is a cancer survivor, is dealing with isolation during this time. “We definitely understand the situation and how lonely that can be,” Trumbo says.
Since many seniors will spend this Thanksgiving holiday alone, small gestures can make a big difference. Polly Drayton says she is grateful to her family for staying in touch with her during these trying times. “My son has gotten us on a family Zoom every once in a while and they’re real good about calling,” she says. “We’re all in this together and we’re trying to stick it out.”
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