By Linda Cassell, as told to Jennifer Clopton
It’s been three months since I’ve been able to hold my husband’s hand or kiss his beautiful, bushy white eyebrows. Charles is in a skilled nursing facility, and, like so many others, we’ve been physically separated from each other because of COVID-19.
Neither of us knew during our last visit that this virus was about to keep us apart. But once I got home, the first notice came - no visitation for the next 2 weeks. It was disappointing, although certainly understandable. The notice that came at the end of those 2 weeks was the real heart breaker. No visitation for the foreseeable future. I will never forget those four words. What does that really mean? How long will this last? I couldn’t imagine any kind of separation – much less one that is open-ended.
Charles and I have been married for 37 years and for three of those decades, we were together and interacting with each other almost every day. Because we were seldom apart, the separation is foreign. Strange. Confusing. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be, especially in the later years of one’s marriage.
We have lived apart for the last 7 years after complications related to knee replacement surgery forced us to make the very difficult decision to move him into a facility where he could get the round-the-clock care he needed. It was an adjustment for sure. But his care facility is just minutes from our apartment, so I still visited many times a week.
COVID-19 changed everything for us.
Intellectually, of course, we understand. Seniors are most vulnerable to this deadly virus and precautions have to be taken. But this separation is really, really hard. Sometimes I can still find a way to create joy and cherish the moment. Thank goodness for Facetime and Zoom, which allows us to watch performances of Duke Ellington and Nat “King” Cole on YouTube together and take virtual tours of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous “Falling Waters” or Howard University’s Founder’s Library, which his father designed.
But other times, it’s incredibly hard for both of us to adjust to this new reality. Charles has lost 20 pounds and yet, I am told that his eating habits haven’t changed. He’s also gotten so sick – not from COVID but from other ailments – that he’s been rushed to the ER two times since we’ve been separated. I’ve raced to the hospital both times to be with him, but visitation was restricted there too – and I never got to see him in the ER or when he was admitted for 5 days. He has congestive heart failure. I can hear his voice becoming weak and his breathing is winded. He broke his cell phone, his lifeline to me, and we can’t replace it until the stores re-open. (He now has a landline.) There have also been times when he has become seriously disoriented, so much so that it was alarming. This had never happened to that extent before. It’s the separation. It is impacting his well-being.
He tells me that he understands why the virus is separating us, but he also tells me that he is lonely and feels isolated. And I know that being separated is also affecting him on a physical level. I have a neuroscience background, so I know how the brain responds to the gentle rubbing of palms, to a soft massage on an arthritic knee, or a light back rub – it releases stress-reducing neurochemicals. What happens when we are deprived of human touch?
All of this can be emotionally overwhelming at times. I have my anxious moments. Anxiety sets in when I worry about what the future “may” hold. However, I don’t want to be grounded in fear. So, I’m trying hard to be focused and clear-headed, anchoring myself in joy, hope and gratitude. I have learned there are many things that help me do that:
- Dance mornings. Recently, I was finding it difficult to get out of bed. What to do? Dance to “Don’t Stop me Now,” by Freddie Mercury/Queen. Gets me going every time!
- COVID-19 is contagious, but so is kindness. I repeat this to myself throughout the day. It shifts my focus away from the virus to something that I think we all need much more of, especially now.
- In this moment, is everything ok? This is a very important question that brings me back to the present, the only thing over which I have control or influence. Well, yes. In this moment everything is ok. When I focus on that, my anxiety dissipates. My husband is alive and in a wonderful facility with caring people; we can talk daily; I have work that sustains and fulfills me, and I can work safely from home
- Humor. I admit. I am watching more TV than ever. And it is fun! I have discovered so many great new programs. Humor. Adventure. Mysteries. Escapism helps!
- My sister. Lucky me. My sister moved here two years ago. I can’t imagine doing this on my own. We take long walks together, window shop online, and connect with our brother in Delaware every day. It’s wonderful!
Recently, I was overjoyed to see a headline indicating that some hospitals were beginning to allow visitations between families and loved ones. However, my heart fell when I read the article. “If your loved one is within one to two hours of dying, one member of the family is allowed to visit.”
I will not accept that. We must do better. We can figure this out. I am told that the facility where my husband resides is now working with officials to create a plan for family visitations. My husband is 95, with multiple underlying conditions, so I hope and pray that this happens soon. Does it mean wearing PPEs, maintaining social distance, visiting outside since the weather is now warm or restricting the length of visits? I’m willing to do any of that.
While I wait to hear, I try to stay as optimistic as I can. A friend asked me if I thought I would see my husband before he dies. You bet! I trust and believe that even though I don’t know how or when, the day will come when he and I will be together again. I truly believe this is not how a love story like ours will end. There are still many more beautiful chapters that we will write … together.
Linda Cassell, MEd, CPCC, is a Certified Neuro Leadership Coach based in Washington, D.C. Connect with her on LinkedIn.