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Culture in the Time of Pandemic

By 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..

*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.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Verna M. Cavey lives in Denver, CO. She examines culture and culture change in elder communities. This piece originally was published by Pioneer Network, a national not-for-profit organization working to change the culture of aging, with its primary goal to move eldercare to a place where all care and support are person-directed, not system-directed … where flexibility and self-determination are embraced and practiced. To read the orginal piece with comments, click here.