A woman named Mary Daniel had been unable to see her husband, Steve, for 114 days because of the coronavirus restrictions at the Jacksonville, Florida senior care facility where he has lived since last July. Steve was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s seven years ago. “I put him in a memory care center and everything was going really, really well. He was thriving with all the people,” Daniel said. “And in March, obviously everything changed.”
Before the pandemic hit, she was able to visit her husband each night and helped him get ready for bed. However, the facility closed to visitors starting March 11 to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to the vulnerable population that lives there, so she had to stop visiting him.
Daniel had no idea how long the lockdown would last and started trying to find a creative way to see her husband again. “Originally, I sent an email to the executive director saying, ‘OK, what do I need to do to get in there? Can I volunteer… can I bring a therapy dog? Can I get a job?” At first, the staff didn’t take Daniel up on her offers, and she became restless. She wrote to local and state officials to urge them to end the isolation of patients in senior care facilities.
“We have separated these folks to save them, but we have separated them and it’s going to kill them. The isolation will absolutely kill them,” Daniel said. “Especially dementia patients, they need interaction. They need to be touched, their brain needs to be stimulated so that they can grow instead of just really wither away.”
Daniel was worried about her husband and how much time he had to spend alone. She also saw how his behavior had changed as a result of the quarantine. “He actually had an altercation with one of the other residents, and that’s an indicator of the stress. I’ve never seen him get in an altercation with anyone.” She was eventually able to visit him on two occasions, but she had to stand outside of his room with a window between them, which was upsetting to him. “I think it’s worse when he sees me than when he doesn’t see me,” she said. She decided not to keep visiting him that way but was desperate to find another way to stay connected to him.
Then, she received a surprise call. “Out of the blue, two weeks ago, the corporate office of his memory care center called me and said, ‘We’ve got a part-time job available, would you like to take it?'” Daniel said. She was willing to take whatever job they offered, and they asked her to work as a dishwasher which allowed her to see her husband regularly.
“It has been such an amazing blessing. I have seen him three times,” Daniel said. “I’m working two days a week — and it is the real deal. It is 100% legit. I had to get a background screening, fingerprints, a TB test, COVID-19 test, a drug test, 20 hours worth of training, a video on everything from food safety to hazardous waste disposal.”
She said that every employee at the care center has to be tested for COVID-19 every two weeks, but since her brother-in-law is a physician who is able to administer the test, she will plan to be tested even more frequently
“It is worth it to be able to visit him, and I can already just tell the difference in his demeanor after three visits,” she said. “I get to go again tonight… it has made the world of difference for me.”
Although her husband Steve cannot articulate through words, he is able to communicate is by showing affection. Daniel shared, “There’s a comfort that comes from me being with him, from me holding his hand. That’s how we are able to love and I’m able to comfort him now. And I see him settling into that, I noticed it last night that he was very relaxed as he was getting ready for bed.”
Daniel still hopes for an end to the isolation policy for patients. “I’m so grateful… I am so lucky and fortunate, but I want to be with him every day,” she said. She has also started a Facebook page advocating for patient rights during the pandemic. “It’s really, really, a very, very difficult situation that so many families are in. And I hope that one of the things this story tells is it’s not just about my success of us being creative… but the plight of so many others that don’t have the blessing I have. We need to find a way. There has to be a better way to do this than complete isolation.”