Culture in the Time of Pandemic

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Verna Cavey, Elder

A nuthatch crawls down the branch of a large tree outside my window. I move to my laptop to report in to my neighbors. Somehow, spontaneously, residents in independent living have created an online birdwatching group. A neighbor on the eastside of the building reports that the duck couple has returned as they do every spring and we look forward to ducklings again. On the westside, flickers send out alarms, disturbed by Canadian geese who have arrived in a nearby yard. Locked in, we watch and share the nature outside our windows.

We have not been idle in this global pandemic. My neighbor one door down has made us masks. We thank her with supplies she might need – coffee and pasta – after disinfecting them of course. We share resources online or library books which can’t go back to the library because it is shut down. We share laughter via email or phone. Still we pause when we hear an ambulance come up our drive.

Humans adapt but the speed at which we have changed stuns me. In aging communities, we discuss culture change a great deal. I realize we have entered a novel form of culture change. We can already see it in our new language, behaviors, rituals and so on. In my community there is no Covid-19 as yet, so perhaps there is more time for reflection. However, our aging communities across Colorado are currently affected and people are dying around the world in elder homes at a terrible rate.

I am fortunate as I am pretty much an introvert and am content, weeks in, cleaning out my closets, reading 50-year old letters; meeting friends on Zoom; attending university classes online. But I know that my more social friends have it much harder. And some of my neighbors do not use the Internet. I leave my apartment seldom, my face now covered, only to pick up delivered groceries or get the mail. It is our team members who are doing the cooking and delivering of hot meals; the purchasing, disinfecting and delivering of groceries; the disinfecting and distribution of mail as our postman refuses to be screened. So much mail. So many meals. And I can’t even imagine the labors in our medical areas, which have been closed much longer than independent living.

I can see how exhausted our team members are. Still they stay and serve. I marvel at them and that they are doing this for me. Our Director gives us honest, frequent communications – and to our families as well. On our TV channel, he sometimes reads us his great-great-great grandfather’s letters from the Civil War (a man also forced away from his family during difficult times). Chris’s slow, steady reading is calming. His presence and his respect is restoring. With the weight that he is carrying, how does he find the time to sit and talk to us in what is like an old-fashioned fireside chat.

One of my neighbors, Tina (the mask maker), told me: “Our leadership is open and direct and speaks to our strengths. I feel trusted, encouraged and supported and therefore empowered – and willing – to do the hard things.”

I know from the news that this is not the case everywhere and I am grateful for the beliefs and practices in our culture. It’s true, we are affected: Our surgeries have been postponed. Physical therapists can no longer work out our pain. We miss our families. My groceries come with service, delivery and tip charges, so less money is spent on food. We dream of just getting in the car and taking a drive around the block. It feels quite selfish when others are suffering so much, but I worry I won’t travel again and it has been the joy of my retirement. Our future will change in ways we never expected. However, we don’t know as yet if our fears are greater than the reality.

I check in with other residents to see if they are OK. In Assisted Living, Gretl, my sweet friend who has known the horrors of WWII Europe, tells me her granddaughter made her a handsome snowman outside her window. He has celery as a nose because her grandchild had no carrot – a whole lot of love though. Over the phone, I can tell Gretl is tickled. Even in a global pandemic every elder counts. Every single one of them.

Because it’s my thing, I think about culture. While I await news of another friend who is ill with coronavirus in a nursing home some miles from here, I remember that “dissonance” is critical to a healthy society. It tests the strength and endurance of our culture. But we just want this plague to go away. I want my friend to get better, to survive. As a child in Holland, she also fought Nazis and then as an adult fought for social justice here in Denver. A social worker I know, a vibrant man in his early 50s, is already gone. When we return to the world, how many other friends will we learn about?

Behind my tree, a sunset over the mountains delights me now. TV news always in the background. I make my dinner more creatively with canned vegetables, but a good dinner just the same. We surprise ourselves at what we can do.

Often in the past I thought that not much was asked of me relative to those who experienced world war or the 1918 epidemic. Now I am being asked. It is finally sinking in that the autumn of my life may not be the same for a time. I will have to learn and adapt to the new elements added to our culture every day. And then I see our people, our community family, coming into work and doing what they do for us; only now they have to do it upside down and twice as hard. I can do this too. I will do this.

Verna M. Cavey lives in Denver, Colorado. She examines culture and culture change in elder communities.

*After submitting this article, Verna learned that a team member and a resident in their Health Suites were confirmed to have Covid-19 and others are being tested.

17 comments on “Culture in the Time of Pandemic

  1. Donna K Woodward on

    Your generosity during this pandemic is inspiring; thank you for what you’re doing.

    “Because it’s my thing, I think about culture.” I think about this also, especially the culture we aspire to of person-centered care in our long-term care communities. My 88-year old aunt lives in such a community. Residents have been in virtual lockdown since March 11. Right now their priority is to keep the virus out, and so far they have, thankfully. But now I wonder, at what price are they continuing the extreme restrictions? I speak to my aunt by phone numerous times a day. Other family members Facetime her. I visit three or four times a week and we speak through the window by phone because when there is ‘nothing to do’ she doesn’t even want to get dressed. (This from a woman who still insists on taking a shower every day and having her hair done weekly.) And most days, there is nothing to do.

    The Director says there have been no cases of the virus among residents or staff, for which we families are grateful. But I’ve wondered, and asked the Director, why at this point a few residents at a time couldn’t be brought to the dining room, seated at a healthy distance from each other, for a meal with friends once or twice a week? Why not more small-group activities among the residents, none of whom have the virus and have been isolated for all these weeks? Is this for welfare of residents, or the convenience of the residence?

    One size does not, cannot, should not fit all, not in a person-centered care communitiy. Not even, I suspect, when it comes to Covid-19 restrictions. After all, the greater risk of contagion is from the staff who come and go every day, not from other residents. Residents who sit alone in their rooms most of the day, week after week, aren’t thriving. My aunt is aware that her ability to focus and remember is suffering, and is depressed by this. (I am too.)

    This residence is an expensive place and, as these places go, on the better side of things. And I realize that staff are currently consumed by keeping the virus at bay. But I wonder if we’e been too tolerant of the restrictions. Too accepting of the diminution of person-centered care that is happening. Insufficiently willing to press for safe alternatives to sheltering in place, alone, for most hours of the day.

    • Joan Devine on

      Donna, Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I know that restrictions being imposed do vary by state and even in some cases by locality within states. Like regulations, they are often interpreted by individual communities differently. You are right, and I think we are finding this, that one size does not fit all. Just as you point out, there is a fear that in our quest for clinical safety, that we may be losing site of the fact that, as we know, loneliness can kill, too.

    • Cathy Lieblich on

      I love your comment, Donna, as it speaks to an issue that has happened in my life. My mother in law lives in a Life Plan Community/CCRC and she and a few of her friends have decided to meet at one of their homes in the evening a few days a week to play cards or games. I was concerned about the decision until I witnessed the difference in my mother in law’s demeanor once they started doing that. As she said, “I’m 88 and don’t want to spend what time I have left being depressed, isolated and lonely.”

    • Donna on

      Hi Joan and Cathy, and thank you for your appreciation of this issue and empathetic words. Pioneer Network has done so much to promote a person-centered care culture; for this to be another victim of Covid-19 would take us back to the dark ages of long-term care.

      • Joan Devine on

        Donna, We truly believe that stories will come out of this from organizations with a deep foundation in person-centered care, and that they will show the value of work that has been done to transform the culture of aging care and services, and that these stories will serve as a catalyst for further change.

  2. Susan Schwing on

    I have known Verna since we met in college. She is a dear friend who has continued to learn and grow and teach others through her whole life. I am truly blessed by her friendship. Thanks for a wonderful article, Verna!

  3. Manda Mountain on

    Thank you, Ms. Verna. Your words relaxed me. I, too, have been thinking of the culture change that accompanies this pandemic. Your selection of the word “dissonance” made me think of all the varying viewpoints of how our country should heal from this and all the various ways this is affecting people(some working very long hours and others longing to get out of their homes or see their families in person). I hope we all can find a way to find the beauty in one another’s “notes.”

    Wishing you continued health.

  4. Libby Reimers on

    Thanks Verna for your words, and thoughts. I too have been watching and wondering about the culture changes. Which ones will stay and what will we quickly forget. What can we expect? It’s impossible to know, so I seek to learn better how to live in the present – that is LIVE in the present! Living today with gratitude is not difficult, but living with the underlying fear that follows us around as we do the activities of daily living is more challenging. In all of this most of us, as you Verna, continue to thrive. Thanks again for sharing.

  5. George Wedberg on

    Just a comment on the perceived need to disinfect everything that comes into your apartment. The CDC says that the Covid-19 virus decays away (becomes inactive and harmless) on surfaces, with a half-life of about 6 hours — which means that after about 6 hours only half the virus is still harmful, after 24 hours only 1/16 th is harmful, after 48 hours only 1/256 th is harmful, and after 72 hours it has been reduced by a factor of over 4,000. So, rather than trying to disinfect everything, we simply set it aside for a couple of days before touching it again. Admittedly not a useful strategy for meals or frozen food, but useful for almost everything else.

  6. Brad Norris on

    It has been an amazing process for me to be a part of as we put our petty differences aside and pull together with an unprecedented team spirit to get the job done!! I am grateful to be a part of such an amazing healthcare team as we have at the Homewood Retirement Centers Martinsburg PA Campus! Thanks to my colleagues and to all healthcare workers around the globe who are sharing this universal experience!!

    • Joan Devine on

      Thanks for sharing – and congratulations to your team and as you said, to all the healthcare workers around the globe. It is amazing what we can do when we all work together!

  7. Imelda Maurer on

    Verna and her community have made conscious efforts to deepen the community relationships that already existed before the Stay at Home orders. So commendable and worthy of imitation! Her post also reflects that purpose and meaning are alive and well in her daily life. What a gift! A gift to have a sense of purpose and meaning and a gift to express it in service to others!

    Verna’s sense of community extends to staff toward whom she expresses her appreciation and gratitude. I wish I knew you, Verna!

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