ROBERT HAYWARD has spent the last year witnessing firsthand what the Bible teaches in its first pages: “It is not good for man to be alone.”
In March 2020, the president of Quarryville Presbyterian Retirement Community in Quarryville, Pa., followed state directives to bar visitors and make plans to care for 435 residents in isolation for the long haul. The retirement community—a mix of independent living, personal care (assisted living), and skilled nursing care—was spared severe outbreaks, but Hayward says the past year was still tough: “We’re designed for relationship, not for isolation.”
The need for safety was clear: COVID-19 proved especially dangerous for elderly populations, and it spread quickly through congregate settings. Nursing home deaths account for nearly a third of U.S. coronavirus fatalities, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of mortality data.
After spending months trying to encourage and motivate his staff, Hayward says a chaplain encouraged him to lament more. Hayward went home and wrote a lament with his wife that he shared with the broader community last June: “Our lives are as we never imagined they would be. … Our loved ones are taken from us. And You, O Lord, seem far away.” He ended with hope: “Our flesh and our hearts may fail. But you, O Lord, are the strength of our hearts and our portion forever.”
Hayward says, “I actually found the lamenting to be more encouraging to people than my trying to be encouraging to them.”
Last year, officials in some states started loosening visitor restrictions at long-term care facilities in an early effort to reunite lonely residents with their families. In October, after Texas eased restrictions, a Houston news station showed the moving reunion between a couple married for 68 years but separated by the coronavirus. Joyce and Bobby Myers had moved into the same retirement community, but Joyce lives in a memory care unit of the facility.
When health officials locked down the memory care wing to stop the spread of COVID-19, Bobby couldn’t visit. Finally, in October, new protocols allowed Bobby to visit his wife, and he held her hand for the first time in months: “We’ve been in love since I was 14 years old … and the love never faltered.”
Now, a year after the pandemic began, a dramatic decrease in COVID-19 deaths in facilities across the United States is allowing even more family members to huddle, hug, and hold hands. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services declared in a March memo that care facilities should allow “responsible indoor visits at all times for all residents,” regardless of the vaccination status of the resident or visitor. (The memo included exceptions, such as a resident with an active COVID-19 infection.)
New guidelines still call for screening visitors for symptoms, wearing masks, and basic protocols for social distancing, but they do allow for physical contact between residents and visitors, when a resident is vaccinated.
In mid-March, Robert Hernandez visited his 97-year-old aunt in a Joliet, Ill., nursing home for the first time in a year. Euldalia Asa survived COVID-19 and endured more than a year of window visits with her family. A Chicago news station reported on the reunion: With Asa’s faltering vision, she didn’t recognize her nephew right away. Hernandez said he told her “It’s me. … And she said, ‘I recognize the voice.’”
He told his aunt he was sorry it had been so long since they had visited in person. She smiled: “I’m glad to see you.”
THE VIRUS THAT CAUSES COVID-19 proved most dangerous to people ages 65 and older, and Americans in that age bracket had to be especially cautious about going to public places or meeting with friends and family members. Some have gone months largely isolated in their homes.
That demographic is also vital to U.S. nonprofits, which rely heavily on the volunteer work of retirees. When the pandemic struck, many nonprofits found themselves shorthanded. As of mid-March, several organizations told WORLD they hadn’t yet seen many people in the 65-and-older bracket return to volunteering.
But at least some of those volunteers have returned—and others hope to soon.
Raleigh, N.C., resident Jane Woodward, 72, returned to volunteering at the Raleigh-based Refugee Hope Partners (RHP) just a few weeks ago. She began working with the group in summer 2017, when RHP’s popular “read and swim” program was in full swing: Refugee children could read four days each week to earn a trip to the pool at a local Christian camp. Woodward, a former special needs teacher, remembers sitting at a table where kids could get help reading in English. “Sometimes you’d have kids who can’t read, so I would read to them,” she said. “When it ended I was sad.” She and her husband, Woody, also volunteered with the organization’s homework help program.
In February 2020, the Woodward family flew to Atlanta for a wedding. That’s where they believe their adult daughter caught COVID-19. “From then on it was seclusion,” said Jane. She had to stop tutoring lessons with a 7-year-old girl through RHP, whom she’d been teaching the colors. “My first thought was, ‘She will never learn purple,’” said Jane. She could no longer lead a Bible study at a local retirement home, and her church small group met exclusively on Zoom. She could not see or hug her five grandchildren, even though they lived nearby. Jane remembers spending lots of time working in the yard, as the year passed in a blur. “Sometimes I wonder, ‘What did I do all last summer?’” she said with a laugh. “We really and truly have not socialized until recently.”
On Feb. 9, 2021, Jane and Woody got their second doses of the Pfizer vaccine. Two or three weeks later, they resumed weekly volunteering with RHP. Now they teach kindergartners and first graders on Thursday afternoons. In the last few weeks, Jane has also returned to church, started working in the nursery again, and hugged her grandchildren.