Before the Coronavirus, independent living facilities could seem like an adventure cruise – meals in an elegant dining room, loads of social activities, and friendly people. But in the age of Covid-19, life inside a retirement community carries strict new protocols.
During a recent visit to Plantation Village in Porters Neck, we discovered that while some residents say they’re grateful for the extra protections, the restrictions present new challenges – like loneliness.
"By this time you know your time is relatively short. You just know that, and among our friends, we talk about that from time to time. You know, we joke about it. We recognize that this is why we’re here is because, you know, physically we’re not the same as we used to be."
This is my mother. She lives here in an apartment with my stepfather -- where death is a consistent part of life.
"Some people say it’s the worst part of being here…We’ve only been here two and a half years… we’re starting to know some now…One of my PV Singers died about a month ago."
PV -- for Plantation Village Singers – is a chorus of about 30 people she directs. She’s very proud of the group, but with the current restrictions they can’t rehearse or perform. That’s the thing she misses most.
"Yeah, it got to the point where the PV Singers had a reputation for being pretty good. [laughter] We probably had an audience of almost 200 for the last Fourth of July Concert."
Of course, there was no Fourth of July concert this year. There was a door-decorating contest, though. She won first prize.
"[laughter] You know I’ve won so many prizes around here I can’t remember which was which…oh yes! I do remember what that one was..."
It was her PV Singers-themed mosaic that won. As she tells me about it, I notice how effortlessly she segues from talk of death to the joys of her life.
That’s not unusual here.
Through the visitation system, I meet Betty Rosseter.
I’ve had to make an appointment, check in with the nurse at the front to have my temperature taken, wear a mask, and then sit outside at a metal table on which an intercom -- reminiscent of a 1980s telephone -- is perched.
Betty Rosseter is comfortably indoors – visible behind a window. On the phone, she tells me about her beloved Irish Setter who died before she moved in here. She lives alone, but she won’t get another dog.
"If the dog has a seizure at 3 in the morning what am I going to do?"
That’s the intercom system through which it’s hard to hear, harder to record.
She worries about her dog having a seizure at 3 in the morning and without a car, what would she do? So she takes care of other peoples’ dogs.
Plantation Village officials, aware of their residents’ vulnerability and how catastrophic an outbreak could be, have had to prohibit milestone birthday parties, close the community dining room, and discourage out-of-state -- even off-campus -- travel.
But Executive Director Zane Bennett says there’s an unexpected silver lining: residents are becoming more tech-savvy.
"We have struggled with adoption rates of technology, because there's always been another option. Why would I want to use the portal system to sign up for an event when I can just come down and fill it out in an activities book to sign up for something? And it's the same with meal reservations or completing work orders or talking with family via Zoom or FaceTime. And this has forced the hand of many people."
Richard Progelhof moved here five years after his wife passed away. He does lapidary work. Out of the stones he cuts and polishes come pieces of jewelry for the fourteen women in his life who are daughters, granddaughters, great-granddaughters. But it’s still solitary work. And he lives alone.
"Being single it’s a little more difficult. I talk to the walls. Thank God they’re not talking back yet! But this is what -- three months now we've been under restriction. That I would say is the most difficult part – just being alone."
But he’s cheerful and explains the tools he uses to cut and polish his stones… then midway into our conversation...
RP: I just lost my son two weeks ago.
RLH: I’m so sorry!
RP: Yeah, he was 53.
No one knew, he says, that his son’s back pain was actually advanced cancer. His son went to the doctor and died a week later. Richard can’t travel to Maryland to help or attend a service, but he says he’s glad his daughter is taking care of the estate.
All three residents, Richard, Betty, and my mother say as difficult as the restrictions can be, they’re grateful for them.
My own mother has no illusions about her chances with Covid-19.
"I have underlying conditions and my age and if I got it I probably wouldn’t make it… That’s scary to me."
That’s not necessarily a fear of death, though, which is a consistent part of life here.
"I feel a responsibility to my husband and I don’t want to predecease him if I don’t have to. That’s why it’s scary. I’ve had some bad dreams about it but only a couple of times. Yes, it’s scary."
But then we’re back to chatting about her mosaics, and Richard tells me about feeding the turtles and Betty says she loves to ride her recumbent tricycle and care for her friends’ dogs and cats – even the mean ones.
"I took care of this one – I said, okay is she nice? Well….uh oh – and that tells you right there!"
Executive Director Zane Bennett says he knows current restrictions are hard on people, and he looks forward to the day his residents can be with their families in person.
"We recognize we're a high touch business. We don't want that to go away. We like interacting with our residents, and residents need that interaction with us and their family members."
But with the time they have left, the residents I meet are far more invested in what they love about life than any difficulties Covid-19 might present.
While the Davis Community has documented five Covid-19 cases as of Saturday, neighboring Plantation Village has two.
Executive Director Zane Bennett says the current restrictions on residents can be hard, though: cancelling milestone birthday parties, requiring families to visit through a window pane and a telephone, and two-week quarantines for those who cross state lines.
While the tough protocols seem to be working, there is an element Bennett can’t control. His employees.
"You know, one of the natural fault lines in this whole thing is we, we cannot control what happens outside of the Plantation Village gates…And at the end of the day, people go home to their lives…So they may have different beliefs or they watch a different channel or they get their news from somewhere else. And that has been one of the biggest concerns."
To combat any resistance to protocols, Bennett asked his staff early on to imagine how dramatically Covid-19 could affect residents.
"So we printed out our directory and we overlaid that directory of photos with some of the percentages we were seeing at the time… And we just, we started taking pictures out of the directory and that caused an emotional response."
One surprising upside of restrictions, says Bennett, is the number of older people who’ve decided they can learn new technology – and now use Zoom or FaceTime to communicate with loved ones.
According to state health officials, there have been 12 cases of Covid-19 in New Hanover County nursing homes – none resulting in deaths. Brunswick County has not been as lucky – and has seen four deaths so far.