Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Going Through It Together

     An elderly woman sits alone at the back of the now-unused Activity Room working on a jigsaw puzzle.  On a normal day she and her husband would be taking a tai chi class here.  Other EastView residents would be stopping in later for painting, sculpting, candy making or cupcake decorating. 

     But this is no ordinary day.  It’s part of the second week of restrictions put in place to keep residents safe during the coronavirus pandemic.  All activities have been canceled and residents take their packaged meals to their apartments. 

    This is the opposite of what EastView is about.  EastView Independent Senior Living Residence is The Salvation Army of Greater New York’s latest venture.  Like all of the organization’s residences past and present, the focus is on building a strong sense of community through shared meals and activities. 

     While the residents miss spending time with each other, they express gratitude that all of their needs are being met and that they don’t have to go out for anything.  And they are finding other ways to pass their days, ranging from online chat groups to reading the Bible.

     “In my room I’m doing programs on my computer through the virtual senior center,” said Arlynn Page, who came to the Activity Room to sit at the far side of a table to talk about her experience during this time of global crisis.  “They say, ‘Oh, you look so happy.  You look good.’  They only see my face.  They don’t always know I’m in my pajamas.” 

     Through the virtual center she is taking a course on using the internet for shopping — quite appropriate under the circumstances — and spends Monday nights from 6 to 8 in a chat group with people from around the country.

     “I get to see other people.  We have to be alone in our rooms and we’re not supposed to congregate.  Being able to chat online, it helps.”

       Evidence that life at EastView has changed greatly is everywhere.  Signs posted throughout the building and in the elevators tell residents to keep six feet apart and to tell a staff member if they have a cough, fever or trouble breathing,  Common areas are deserted and the cafe’s seating section is surrounded by yellow caution tape.  The Salvation Army has had more than 150 years of experience in meeting  a crisis with precision and caring.  Safeguarding EastView residents is just one of the efforts being undertaken during the coronavirus pandemic. 

     These efforts are greatly appreciated. Residents express gratitude that they don’t have to face the pandemic alone.  The friendly staff they have known for years at The Williams Residence is still cooking their meals, cleaning their apartments weekly and giving them fresh linens.

     Still, the uncertainty is hard, especially since the pandemic followed closely after the majority of the residents had made the move from their long-time home at The Williams on the Upper West Side to the new state-of-the-art EastView facility in East Harlem.  That was traumatic enough.  Add in a global pandemic and the challenge to keep going became harder.

     “The move nearly destroyed me,” said Joan O’Donnell (in photo) who had lived at The Williams for 13 years and at The Salvation Army’s Teneyck Troughton residence for 40 years.  She said she had been through many difficult times, such as the deaths of her twin sister and her husband when he was only 34 years old, but the trauma of the move was so great she began using an anti-anxiety drug, which she still takes.  “If I can get through the move I can get through this.  I realize I’m lucky to be here.  My problems are so negligible compared to what’s going on.”

     She said she isn’t living in fear, she washes her hands often and even went out for bananas.  Although she misses dining with friends, she finds enjoyment in the comfort of eating in her recliner.  But it is still stressful.

     “I don’t feel good mentally, physically or emotionally,” she said.  “I know I have nothing to worry about.  I just have to control Joan.  What about the people losing jobs and retirement accounts? I am very, very fortunate and I know it.  I just miss my friends and my activities.  I miss going to the movies, but I have my TV.”

     She also misses being in the audience at the New York-based TV talk shows — she’s been to all of them — and is concerned she won’t be able to make her annual summer visit to her native Toronto to see family.  Since she can’t be with her friends she connects with them through WhatsApp and phone calls.

     And she praises the EastView staff for all they are doing to keep the residence running.

     “I can’t thank them enough for what they’ve done for us.  They’re keeping us alive.”

     With awareness of the danger of social isolation for the elderly — an AARP study compared the effects of prolonged isolation to smoking 15 cigarettes a day — EastView’s leadership is making every effort to meet the emotional needs of its residents.  Heather Foreman, EastView’s Social/Resident Services Manager who lives onsite, reports on life there during the crisis.

     “All of their needs are being met far beyond what would be required in an Independent Living Residence.  I have sent out a letter to the residents offering emotional support through the EastView staff.  The officers from our Corps Community Center are also available to talk to any resident who is in need of spiritual and emotional support.”

     Laura  Fernandez, the full-time Lifestyle/Activities Manager who lives onsite, is also available to address their concerns.  

     Foreman put together a packet of information for residents that included mental health resources that could be accessed from home and she had  gifts for them as well.

    "We are purchasing puzzle books, adult coloring books, colored pencils and puzzles as gifts for the residents so they will have things to do to occupy their time while they are isolating.

     “There is only so much we can do at this point to help them feel less isolated when the reality is that isolating is exactly what they should be doing.   As far as meeting the challenges of caring for the residents, we are providing everything they need, including food and housekeeping services as always.  We are being extra diligent in cleaning the facility and educating residents about the coronavirus and social distancing.”

     Ingrid, who asked that her last name not be used, is taking EastView’s new normal in stride.

     “There’s no sense in complaining,” she said, seated, like all of the residents interviewed for this feature, across a table from the reporter in the Activity Room.  “It makes me feel better to just go with the flow.  The people here are making a difference.  Everyone is very helpful.  We’re lucky to be here.  I feel secure.”

     She is doing a lot of walking indoors, going out occasionally while being careful to keep her distance from others and “reading trashy novels.”

     Anita Chenoweth is feeling peaceful by “spending time with the Lord.  I try not to watch a lot of stuff about the coronavirus.  I want to keep my mind clear and ready for God’s word.”  

     What bugs her, though, is having to miss another passion — basketball.  She had a ticket to see Butler University play in the Big East college basketball competition at Madison Square Garden and was then going to take a two-week trip to Florida to see the NCAA tournament.  Having to go without college basketball is torture.

     “I’m in basketball withdrawal,” she said. “Basketball is the hardest thing to lose.  It couldn’t come at a worse time.  I grew up in Indiana.  It’s called Hoosier Hysteria.”

     She also misses singing with her choir at the Brooklyn Tabernacle Church for three services on Sunday and Wednesday night practice.

     “We are a family.  At least we keep communicating through many phone calls.”

     Robert Loch also misses his church, St. Luke’s Lutheran on Restaurant Row in the Theatre District.  Like Chenoweth he keeps in contact with friends through phone calls.  He, too, relies on his faith because he is feeling anxious.

     “I’m worried,” he said.  “I really am. I’ve been through the crash of ’82 and 9/11.   This is the worst I’ve ever seen.  I don’t know what the outcome will be.  I’m worried about my finances.

     “Our health is what I worry about the most.  How easily can you come in contact with the virus?  Can you handle a credit card and not realize it’s on it?  I worry being 80 years old.  I don’t know what level of care will be given.  I don’t know if we are prepared at all for what is going on.”

     Fear doesn’t get the best of him, though.

     “My faith is in God.  I pray more.  I say, ‘Lord, it’s in your hands.’  There’s nothing more we can do.”

     He also draws on the memory of a miracle he witnessed during a trip to Montreal in 1972.  A man named Henri who had been blind for 25 years was on a tour Loch was taking of St. Patrick’s Basilica and its beautiful carved wood.  Henri said since he couldn’t see anything he wouldn’t go in.  The bus driver encouraged him and took him by the arm into the church.

    Loch said Henri prayed to have sight for an hour to be able to see the glory.   When the group moved on to visit Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, Henri told his wife he could see light.

     “He looked at me and said, ‘Robert, I see your eyeglass case in your pocket and your pen.’  His wife was hysterical.”

     Loch and others on the tour gave written testimony to the Roman Catholic Church of what they had observed.

     “I wish I had kept in contact,” he said.  “It was really an awakening.  God was saying to me, ‘There is hope.’  I always thought I’d been blessed to be a so-called witness to a miracle.  It was really an eye-opener to me at the time.”

     Remembering that experience helps now.

     “It gives me perspective.  Why was I called to witness a so-called miracle?  Whenever I look to the Lord I have a feeling he’s there for me.”

     One thing that is clear to the residents is that they are all going through the same thing, and they are going through it together, even while practicing social distancing and isolation. 

     “We’ve never lived through a time like this,” Chenoweth said.  “We’re all learning together.”

Photo by Laura Fernandez