Our Pandemic in April (April 30, 2020)
As 2020’s winter surrenders to spring, Covid-19 is dominating our lives. Here in our San Francisco Bay Area Retirement Community, April has witnessed sweeping adjustments.
I’d like to use this blog post to record and report how this emerging “new normal” feels on the ground. When we moved here, Nancy and I had no inkling we’d signed up for a sequestration seminar. But it’s offering a full syllabus of Agile Aging challenges and opportunities.
In April, our Retirement Community’s management team has been aggressively implementing the coronavirus defensive strategy it planned and initiated in March. From my perspective as a Community resident, I’ve observed three core components:
- Sealing the campus perimeter to keep the virus out;
- Within the campus, restricting person-to-person contacts to limit any virus transmission;
- Preparing medical-treatment protocols if on-campus infections nevertheless occur.
Implementation of all three components has been earmarked by trial-and-error, tweaking, and belt-tightening, with requested behaviors steadily giving way to requirements. The entire campaign has been pushed and pulled by a rapid stream of pandemic directives issuing from Federal, State, County and municipal authorities, all promoting vigilant personal hygiene, social distancing and sheltering in place.
The strategy’s securing-the-perimeter component was launched rather modestly in March with management requests that residents limit non-essential off-campus errands. Soon campus visits by friends, relatives and vendors were prohibited. After some initial hiccups, security personnel are enforcing a strict cordon around the property, screening staff arrivals and departures and sanitizing delivered packages. Now almost all off-campus trips by residents are prohibited. Unpostponable medical appointments must be followed by two weeks of in-apartment quarantine, corresponding to the virus’s known incubation period.
The strategy’s second component, imposing intramural restrictions, can be illustrated by management’s efforts to introduce social distancing into residents’ meals. Dining restrictions swiftly evolved from spreading out chairs at dining-room tables, to staggered sittings with six-foot-interval entry lines, to apartment delivery, to detailed instructions for avoiding any personal contact between delivering staff and hungry residents.
We’ve been witnessing a comparable belt-tightening trajectory in management’s use of protective masks. This campaign’s initial focus was on procuring medical-grade masks for the campus’s health-care personnel. Next, cloth masks appeared on all non-medical staff interacting with residents – receptionists, housekeepers, meal-deliverers and maintenance men. For stay-at-home citizens stepping out of doors, federal and state mask guidelines were initially only discretionary. As a result, our Community residents tended to dally, teasing about bandannaed banditos. On April 22, sticks displaced carrots. Unequivocal signs were taped to all our apartment buildings’ exterior doorways: “COVID-19 ALERT. A face covering must be worn when leaving your apartment. By order of San Mateo County Public Health.” Within hours, a cloth mask in a zip-lock bag had been hand-delivered to every Independent Living resident.
The campus strategy’s first two prongs appear to be working. As we near the end of April, over 1,000 cases of COVID-19 infections and 40 deaths have been confirmed in our surrounding county. Several nearby senior facilities, including upscale properties, have reported multiple cases and even fatalities. By contrast, our Retirement Community has detected no residents’ infection and only two staff cases, quickly isolated and successfully monitored. It’s early days. But so far so good.
As for the strategy’s third component, medical treatment, it has thankfully not yet been necessary to implement. But a full-phased program has been published and circulated by the Community’s health-care professionals. Infected residents will be diagnosed and isolated in their individual apartments. Their recent contacts will be identified, traced and quarantined. The most seriously ill patients will be transferred to local hospitals for observation and treatment, including, if necessary, access to ICUs and ventilators. Management vigorously conducted door-to-door apartment canvassing to collect new residents’ Advance Health Care and Do Not Resuscitate Directives.
In all of these tracks, our management’s attitude has been super-protective and deliberately proactive, attempting to keep ahead of the curve as the virus advances through surrounding communities. An on-campus interdisciplinary pandemic task force meets daily. We see team members working early and late. Transparency and communication with residents is consistently maintained. Our Executive Director delivers and rebroadcasts weekly COVID-19 briefings on closed-circuit TV, supplemented by emailed printouts. On the most active day, five bulletins were disseminated.
The defensive campaign’s motto is “This is the best place to be.” We find the message convincing.
HOW OUR RESIDENTS ARE RESPONDING
As my previous posts have emphasized, under normal circumstances this community is highly social and interactive. The dining room hums at mealtimes. The campus calendar bulges with concerts, lectures, exercise classes, meetings and movies. Now all those gatherings have been indefinitely suspended. A switch has been thrown, interrupting most direct communication.
In what must be a tribute to the residents’ nimbleness and resilience, in April I noticed that electronic networks were almost instantaneously upgraded to boost substitute contact. To keep in touch with scattered families and friends, residents are increasingly utilizing Zoom, Skype and FaceTime. Within our campus, networking has two main components: closed-circuit television and a curated intranet. The TV channel had always been available to transmit live presentations to apartment-bound residents. Now it’s been pressed into duty to carry the Executive Director’s weekly briefings, plus concerts, movies and workshops originally scheduled for the campus auditorium. In tandem, the intranet has expanded into the village’s chief lifeline, a virtual town square. A tech-savvy resident doubles as air-traffic controller and master of revels. You-Tube video clips, relayed news bulletins and articles, and links to cultural resources all zip around this network. Jokes and skits are especially popular, promoting laughter as the best medicine. A parallel “Forum” connects our residents to neighbors in the surrounding township. Ironically, enforced separation is bringing us closer together.
Not all shared contributions are silly or sophomoric. Here’s one imported pandemic poem that clearly moved multiple residents. (Originally mis-attributed to a pre-Civil War source resurrected during the 1918-19 Spanish Flu, this poem turns out to be the coronavirus inspiration of Kitty O’Meara, a former teacher and chaplain retired near Madison, Wisconsin.)
And the people stayed home. And read books, and
listened, and rested, and exercised, and made
art, and played games, and learned new ways of
being, and were still. And listened more deeply.
Some meditated, some prayed, some danced.
Some met their shadows.
And the people began to think differently. And
The people healed. And in the absence of people
living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and
heartless ways, the earth began to heal.
And when the danger passed, and the people
joined together again, they grieved their losses,
and made new choices, and dreamed new images.
And created new ways to live and heal the earth
fully, as they had been healed.
Contagious Acts of Kindness
National news coverage of the pandemic often seems to emphasize conflict and controversy. But here on our elder campus, I’ve been repeatedly struck by how this approaching threat is prompting compassion and empathy.
The management and staff are literally putting their own lives and those of their families on the line, working long hours in constant proximity to vulnerable seniors to protect us from infection. Support and appreciation flow in multiple directions. The non-profit corporation that owns and operates our Community has paid employees cash bonuses to acknowledge their sacrifices and help defray their added expenses. And when a County directive prohibited non-essential construction, the corporation was able to keep some contractors’ workers on the payroll by shifting them to perimeter-protecting security duties. Community residents express daily thanks to staffers and send weekly cards of appreciation. A residents’ assembly-line sewed masks for non-medical staff workers until stay-at-home orders precluded working in close contact.
Residents’ creativity and humor seeks other outlets. For over 20 years, our community’s central plaza has been graced by a cherished mascot, a sculpted guardian goose named Jeremiah. An esteemed guild has kept Jeremiah garbed in a succession of custom-tailored costumes, gender-fluid but seasonally appropriate. Now he sports a protective mask like the rest of us.
Small gestures reveal big hearts. Contributors from the area have been donating protective supplies to our Community. Last week a local Girl Scout left a note at our front gate, accompanying a donation of hand-made masks. “My name is Auni. I’d like you to know that you are not alone in this battle. We are here with you. Don’t lose hope.”
A convenient system has been set up enabling us to order groceries from a local family-owned market. Our purchases are then delivered by neighborhood volunteers. When one volunteer delivered our recent order, she added her own gift of a lovely bouquet, which Nancy arranged in an old West Virginia pot.
Through the staff member coordinating this delivery service, we identified and emailed gratitude to our mystery benefactor. Here’s what Meredith wrote in return: “I was happy to shop for you and brought our 15-year-old daughter with me. She is a freshman at [the local high school] and misses her school and friends terribly. I think she feels the same way I do – we are relieved to have something we can do for others in this difficult time, even if that is something as small as ferrying groceries.”
I was touched by a distant example of step-into-the-breach neighborly service that echoes what we’ve been witnessing here on the ground. The New York Times reported that the Cleveland Clinic found itself suddenly short of critical PPE gear, as the pandemic dried up conventional supply channels. In desperation, Clinic leaders reached out to Central Ohio’s Amish community for help producing medical-grade face masks for its 55,000 employees. The Amish mobilized expert sewing teams within 24 hours. “We’re a very individualistic society,” commented one appreciative facilitator. “The Amish have a lot to teach us about community. I think the shift has got to go from ‘I’ to ‘we.’” (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/09/us/politics/amish-coronavirus-ohio.html .)
OUR FAMILY’S ADJUSTMENTS
As April advanced, I felt eerily as if I were slipping into a science-fiction state of suspended animation. It wasn’t that time was standing still. To the contrary, the weeks were gliding by. But normal life had been put on hold with nothing substantial to take its place. In this creepy hiatus, my desk calendar was an uncomforting expanse of crossed-out appointments and mostly blank squares. We all seem to be waiting – for the dreaded pandemic to finally arrive, and for post-interruption normalcy to somehow be renewed.
One morning I was startled and amused to discover that I hadn’t touched my wallet or car keys in half a month. How un-American! When I went out to my parking slot to run the car motor and vary tire position by driving up and down the perimeter road, backing and turning no longer felt automatic. I was tentative from lack of practice.
More cheerily, Nancy and I have eased into our new shelter-in-place constraints with only minimal awkwardness. We’re gearing down, savoring stove-top lattes and leisurely conversations. Three delivered daily meals help us keep track of time. As we peek out of our apartment doors to collect our deliveries, we’re becoming better acquainted with our good neighbor Jane just across the hall.
After decades of living in do-it-yourself developing countries, Nancy can give me a presentable haircut. But she finds the results of trimming her own hair less felicitous.
We read much more, finally dipping into a generous library of favorite texts that we’d hauled from place to place. Nancy has found a fresh perspective on Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet that influenced her hugely 50 years ago. I’ve been revisiting the Great Game played by intrepid British, Turkish, Russian and German agents across the steppes and passes of Central Asia. And marveling at romantic photos of yalis protruding over the Bosporus. Our email exchanges with worldwide friends seem less rushed and more sharing. We’re taking time to show how much we care.
Twice daily we go on vigorous walks around the Community’s perimeter road and up and down a steep wooded hill, both thankfully within our 42-acre campus. Again mirroring national trends, neighborhood wildlife is growing bolder, reclaiming territory now mostly vacated by human hikers. A large flock of wild turkeys saunters around at all hours, toms’ tails flared and gobbles blasting. One morning, two residents flushed a mountain lion. Before another dawn, an irate bobcat yowled on the slope just outside my window.
We’re launching a series of new projects. Not as antidotes to boredom, which so far is never a problem, but as opportunities invited by mandated isolation. Nancy has designed a patio garden and ordered plants from a local nursery. We hope they can be delivered and put in the ground as soon as pandemic restrictions are relaxed. She’s also contemplating how to edit her lifetime collection of overseas journals and family letters for possible on-line publication.
At 4:30 most afternoons, I settle in at my laptop to purr at streamed Metropolitan Opera performances from the past decade. I still fondly recall Milton Cross’s radio broadcasts during bright college years. Living abroad during intervening decades prevented my enjoying cinema transmissions. But now I can catch up, enchanted by brilliant productions, cherished melodies, angelic harmonies, magical sets and backstage interviews. To be sure, several plotlines remain silly. And how not to cringe at a smitten suitor who assures his paramour he finds her as lovable as his mother and as exciting as a national battle flag? I still can’t excuse casting a middle-aged fullback to sing 15-year-old Co Co San. But I am coming to accept the creative freshness of transplanting repertoire favorites into new centuries and settings. Even Cosi fan tutte at Coney Island. When the stage manager whispers “Maestro, to the pit, please” and the conductor cuts a swathe with his poised baton, I’m transported to another world.
Steadily accommodating to my semi-seclusion, I’m much taken by Holland Cotter’s recent homage to Henry David Thoreau and his signature journal, Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Revisiting what he labels as Thoreau’s two-year experiment in self-isolation, Cotter writes “we can learn a lot from what [he] created from it: constructive solitude.” Thoreau utilized his shed-sized cabin as “a studio, a laboratory, an observatory and a watchtower….[He] viewed his refuge as a place of opportunity where he could do what he could not easily do in the everyday world: concentrate and focus…pursuing an intensive course in self-education.” Cotter muses that this complex literary figure sometimes caricatured as a hermit and even a crank may serve as a role model for making the most of sheltering in place. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/09/arts/design/thoreau-walden-coronavirus-quarantine.html .
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
On the cusp of May, I feel as if our Retirement Community is hovering in a curious limbo. On the surface, we remain a collection of privileged retirees, residing in a lovely landscaped campus. Fed, pampered and served by a battalion of support staff. Simultaneously, we’re a cluster of vulnerable seniors, relying on phalanxes of security and health-care professionals to insulate us from lethal pathogens.
Thus far, I get the impression that Community management is more focused on repelling and limiting contagion, while residents remain preoccupied with their personal confinement. The most common question I hear from neighbors is some version of “How long will we be cooped up?” Compounding their restlessness, the honest answer is “No one knows.”
Notwithstanding the President’s provocative promotion of “liberation”, a solid consensus among public-health experts counsels staying the course. As I write these notes, there are early signs that the number of new daily cases may be leveling off here in California. But as I understand the pandemic dynamics, this welcome development is insufficient to justify sending folks back to work and school. A flattened curve doesn’t terminate the crisis. It merely stretches out the timeline, accumulating new cases and deaths at a slower pace until a proven vaccine is ready. By most informed assessments, the development, trials, production and distribution of an effective vaccine will require at least 12 to 18 months, counting from February 2020 when Chinese scientists first began internationally sharing genetic details of COVID-19.
What we need beyond leveling is a sustained declining trajectory, so that fewer and fewer cases can be detected and isolated while their contacts are traced and, if necessary, quarantined. And that detection will require a massively expanded scope of testing. Credible testing will permit the substitution of targeted quarantines for the general shutdown, freeing up the majority of uninfected citizens. Reopening prior to that decline risks a second wave or series of waves much more serious than the first. Bottom line for us vulnerable sequestered seniors: we may not be going anywhere soon.
In the meantime, California is doing relatively well compared with other states. We rank only 29th in coronavirus-caused deaths per cases. This despite having experienced uniquely high numbers of travelers from China before the national border was closed. Our state’s proactive and courageous leadership must deserve credit for this relative safety. That said, we’ve still suffered nearly 1,900 deaths. And that total is still increasing.
Our predicament as Retirement Community residents doesn’t approach the gravity of pandemic challenges confronting under-equipped front-line health-care personnel. Nor of other groups like workers who have lost jobs, health insurance or housing; small-business owners on the brink of bankruptcy; or other seniors trapped in neglectful nursing homes. By almost any criterion, we’ve comparatively little to complain about. Better to take a deep breath, read a good book, go for a walk, avoid overreacting to inflammatory headlines, wash our hands and act our age.
Let me hear from you so we can practice Agile Aging together. Stay safe and well.