By Chris Croll
I never could have imagined two of the most horrific events in my lifetime—my father dying and a global pandemic—would happen simultaneously. My father’s slide downhill began this past Christmas Eve when he experienced shortness of breath while trying to wrap a gift. Several hospital stays and five months later, my dad now lives in an assisted living facility and last week we put him on hospice. He has end-stage congestive heart failure, which not only renders him unable to breathe without oxygen but also involves high doses of round the clock medications to keep his heart beating.
As a result of the brain not getting enough oxygen, my dad also experiences episodes of acute delirium where he thinks he’s back in the Bronx, he sees people who aren’t there, or he thinks there is a party going on upstairs (his facility is only one level). As hard as it is for anyone to watch their strong, independent 76-year old father decline, the entire situation has been made so much more painful for me—and for so many others going through a similar experience—by the fact that this is all happening during a pandemic.
Here are a few examples of how COVID-19 has had an impact:
•Nearly all assisted living facilities are closed to visitors. Not just family members are prohibited from entering but also physical therapists, palliative nurses and others who might extend a person’s life, or at least make their decline more comfortable.
•It is a challenge to find an assisted living facility where your loved one is in a room with a window facing the outside of the building. My dad’s window only opens 4 inches so it’s not always easy to communicate with him. But at least I can see him.
•Testing for COVID-19 is becoming routine in many nursing homes, especially in “memory care” facilities where residents are known to wander from room to room. My dad, a New Yorker who generally keeps to himself, has started tossing Hershey’s kisses into the hallway to draw out residents who accidentally wander into his room.
• Any groceries, clothing or other articles we bring to my dad have to be sanitized before they are delivered to him. With 45 families bringing things for their residents every day, this means it could be hours before he gets a delivery.
•The clergy who came to deliver a blessing for my dad had to do so from outside his window while standing in the dirt and wearing a mask. Only nine family members could attend the service since, by law, gatherings cannot exceed 10 people.
•We cannot safely hug family members who fly into town to visit my dad at his window since they are not quarantining with us. Even in our moments of overwhelming grief, we must cry standing 6 feet apart from one another. On a primal level, it feels very wrong not to hug someone who is doubled over in emotional anguish.
•In final-hours-of-life situations, relatives are not always permitted to enter assisted living facilities to be with their dying family members. Many elderly people die without even a hand to hold as they leave this earth.
Despite the horrible timing of my father’s illness, we are all doing our best to cope. The assisted living staff is working day and night to keep him comfortable inside while my family sends him love from outside.
For those out there who have found themselves in similar circumstances, please know you are not alone in this sad, complicated and bizarre situation. And to those who have a cavalier attitude about washing hands, wearing masks and taking other precautions to stop the spread of this deadly virus, please understand that each day that goes by with us under lockdown is another many of us don’t get to hug the people we love. No one should ever have to say a final goodbye through a window.
[Chris Croll is a writer, community activist and former member of the Loudoun County School Board (Catoctin District). She lives in Leesburg with her husband and two children.]