Betty Gore, 96, was a teenager when she quit college to work on an assembly line making torpedoes. To this day, she recalls the World War II years as the darkest time of her life. Living through the pandemic during lockdown hasn’t been pleasant, but the sadness pales in comparison to the misery of that era, she says.
Connie Sellar, an 88-year-old COVID survivor, and her husband attended their grandson’s wedding on Zoom last year. It was just one of many hardships she faced over the past year. Still, Sellar says she remains grateful for “whatever you give me.”
In moments of loneliness over stretches of isolation in the last year, Lilyan Henschel, 89, leaned on her faith. “I am too blessed to be stressed,” she says. “I just give it to the Lord and that is his business.”
Life changed for everyone when the coronavirus swept through New Jersey a year ago. But people who live in long-term care facilities experienced the most dramatic and abrupt loss of freedom. Three residents from The Chelsea at Warren, an assisted living facility in Somerset County, recently shared their recollections and their coping strategies after family visits, day trips and group dining abruptly ceased.
The virus decimated long-term care facilities, killing 7,845, one in seven of all residents facilities in New Jersey. Eight Chelsea at Warren residents were among them.
Despite the lockdowns and the loneliness, the death and despair, these women expressed optimism as vaccinations and rapid testing are helping them blaze a path back to the life they once knew.
“When all it started in March (2020), we knew very little,” said Executive Director Farrah Molfetta. “It was scary for us.”
Every employee pitched in delivering meals to residents in their rooms and taking blood pressure and temperature checks three times a day, Molfetta said. When the weather warmed, employees walked with residents, one at a time, around the complex.
“We took a lot measures in the beginning to make them feel safe and confident that we were doing everything in our power to keep them safe and keep them healthy,” Molfetta said.
It quickly became evident that the loss of family visits and daily activities was harmful, she said.
“They couldn’t leave their rooms,” Molfetta said. “A lot of them suffered some form of physical decline. Some suffered cognitive decline. So, it wasn’t the same resident population we were dealing with pre-pandemic.”
But employees said they were also inspired by the resilience among residents.
“This is the ‘greatest generation,’ so to speak, who were quite accustomed to traumas in their lives. It’s quite interesting to see their response to this latest tragedy that we have all gone through,” said Patricia Banta, the regional director of Health Services for The Chelsea properties in New Jersey and New York. “Many did not internalize it, but rather worried more for their families who were out in the community and more at risk.”
Death is not a verboten topic in long-term care settings. Counselors and hospice professionals always have been part of the assisted living community to help residents and staff can deal with the loss when a resident dies, Banta said. A photograph of the person is displayed so people can pay their respects. These support services have been available as residents died over the past year, Banta said.
One resident died by suicide in July, according to a state Health Department inspection report. The unidentified man had threatened to jump out of a second-story window, but recanted when he was sent to the wellness center for an evaluation. He followed through on the threat soon after, according to the July 15 report.
The state cited The Chelsea for failing to “assess (and) monitor to ensure safety” and for not calling 911, as required, when he first made the threat. The facility installed window guards as part of its corrective action plan, the report said.
Banta said she didn’t know if this resident’s emotional state was influenced by the pandemic. She noted that 80% of people over the age of 70 suffer from depression. “It’s always a concern and something we screen for.”
The lockdown was unbroken for five months, Molfetta said. By mid-summer, communal dining made a gradual return. Chelsea created six sites for outdoor socially-distanced family visits. With the virus in decline in Somerset county and not an infection since January when two staffers tested positive, indoor visits by appointment began March 8.
On Monday, Gov. Phil Murphy announced the rules under which visits must resume inside long-term care facilities.
What Elizabeth “Betty” Gore remembers most vividly about living through World War II was the darkness.
Gore said she rose before the sun to arrive at the factory where they manufactured “The Avengers,” the torpedo bomber used in the Pacific theater of the war. She dropped out of college to take a job on the assembly line, and most days it was dark by the time she got home.
The darkness continued no matter what time of day because she lived out on Long Island, where every home was expected to hang blackout curtains, Gore said.
“They blacked out all the windows so you didn’t have any chance of the submarines having light for the background to light the targets,” she said. Everything was blacked out on the East Coast.”
The darkness matched the gloom of the times. “I was 16 when the war broke out and I was 21 when it was over,” she said. “I lost all my fun years.”
It was a far more distressing time than the coronavirus pandemic, she said.
“This will be over before you know it. And we are so well taken care of,” Gore said.
Gore and her husband, Edward moved from a condo in Scotch Plains to The Chelsea nearly two years ago, a necessary but hard decision “to give up your independence,” she said. Her husband of 70 years died months later. “That’s when I found out how nice people are here. Everyone was wonderful to me,” she said.
The lockdown was often lonely but bearable because she kept busy knitting, (15 sweaters since moving in), doing jigsaw puzzles and “googling everything,” she said. “You learn to fill your day.”
What sustains her now is her desire to spend time with her family at her daughter’s home on the Jersey shore. Gore has five children, 13 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
“Even if I have to quarantine when I get back, I’m going to visit my daughter for a week or two. She has a house at Barnegat Light. We used to own a home and spend some time at the Jersey shore. Off-season is even better,” she said.
“To be in her yard and out on her deck. Play with her pup. The things you can’t do when you are just in a room. I’m determined.”
The glass is half-full
Although confined to her room for months, Connie Sellar said she remembered her days being full.
She took care of Jerry, her husband of 68 years, who is living with dementia. And she was in bed for two weeks when she caught COVID-19 in April, although the chest pain and fatigue boomeranged weeks later and lingered for a month.
Fortunately, she didn’t need to go to the hospital, Sellar said. “They took care of me,” she said of the Chelsea staff.
She said she also found time for peaceful reflection.
“I love my room,” Sellar said. “I can look out on the grass. I am on the second floor and somebody downstairs has a bird feeder, so I watched the birds all the time. And I watch the weather.”
She’s back to enjoying group activities, which were reintroduced gradually, such as movie nights and group crossword puzzle competitions.
Calling herself a “glass-is-always-half-full” person, Sellar said she recalled the only time she felt “really down” in the past year was when she spent time in the hospital while she was treated for an infection.
“I could not wait to get back here. This is home for me,” said Sellar.
She said she longed her three kids and her seven grandchildren but kept in touch with frequent telephone calls. Seeing her grandson get married virtually on a Zoom call “was great. We saw the whole thing, heard it. That worked out.”
When asked if she was disappointed she couldn’t be there in person, she shook her head.
“I’m an only child. My husband is an only child. I am the one who feels whatever you give me, I am happy with. So I am one of those who is grateful.”
‘I don’t like to waste time’
When new residents arrive at The Chelsea, they are likely to meet Lilyan “Cherie” Henschel, an outgoing person and is a member of the welcome wagon.
“This is my home and I love it,” she said.
It’s entirely possible that if she had a grievance, she wouldn’t complain. That’s not who she is.
“There’s a spiritual saying I have: God made us to be blessed and I am too blessed to be stressed.’ It took me years to pray on that one. But it happened finally,” said Henschel, her foot in a cast, sitting in a wheelchair. She makes weekly trips to the wound center at Overlook Medical Center in Summit.
“I have some medical problems, but it doesn’t really matter. This too shall pass.”
To feed her “spiritual life,” Henschel watched a lot of Catholic TV programs during the lockdown because, she said, “You might as well be positive with your time. I don’t like to waste time.” She said she texted with her family and friends to stay close.
She had five children. Her only daughter Nancy died in 2014 after a battle with brain cancer. One of her sons quit his job and took care of her to the end, she said.
“All my children are each other’s best friends. We have a wonderful family,” she said.
On Christmas, Thanksgiving, and most recently Valentine’s Day, she was treated to “a whole production outside” of signs, silk flowers and gifts.
Yes, there were trying moments throughout the past year, Henschel said. “If you’ve got a positive life to begin with, you will be able to make it through in a positive way.”
“It isn’t that (bad) things don’t happen, but when they do, they don’t hurt,” she added. “I just give it to the Lord. And that is his business.”
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