Grandma Louise was the hardest working and sassiest person I have ever known. As a child I knew that she loved me dearly in her own unique way. She was active in our family and appreciated the everyday sweet things in life, from a cup of coffee to a game of solitaire. She was an animal lover and taught me to love my pets like they are babies. She read romance novels and smoked cigarettes. She was something else.
Grandma had endured a rough journey, having grieved the deaths of three of her own children and one grandchild, all at unacceptably young ages. Her life as a young woman was hard, too. Her mother died when Grandma was very young, and she became the caretaker of many before she’d even had a chance to grow up. After my grandfather’s passing, my grandma spent many years alone; her children lived close and visited often (almost daily), but she was sad and growing tired. We all worried about her a little and hoped that life would be more kind to her as she aged.
Grandma’s memory loss started to show up several years ago and we were all aware that she needed additional help. She moved into a nursing home in the rural town where she lived, and her world finally became smaller and more manageable. There was something almost welcome about her dementia journey: an invitation, if you will, to forget these unwelcome life experiences and focus on being in the moment. Though her cognition was declining, she seemed mostly content. She certainly had troublesome days of worry and anxiety, but the last several years of her life seemed less traumatic than the trials she had endured earlier in her life. Somewhere in this there is a silver living.
Living with dementia made Grandma extra spunky and sassy; she enjoyed teasing others, liked to hold hands and sing, and was more fun than she had ever been in my lifetime. Though my trips from California to see her were brief—and I surely imposed on my local family who cared for her daily—I loved nothing more than visiting my grandma (affectionately referred to as GG, short for Great Grandma in honor of my niece and nephew). She was always happy when we came to visit, and she was sweeter and softer than earlier in my life. Though she rarely knew who I was, she did know that I belonged and was one of her people.
When COVID-19 hit the nursing home where she was living, our hearts all dropped. I’ll never forget the tone in my dad’s voice when he called that day. Though she never had coronavirus, she was confined to her room with very little social interaction. The doors were closed and no one permitted to visit for weeks on end. My family Facetimed with her when they could, but this was nothing compared to the social, emotional, and physical connection she had felt daily for the last several years.
Prior to COVID-19, my dad, step-mom, aunt, and uncle ensured that one of them was with her at lunch and dinner every day to feed Grandma. Every day for several years. If they couldn’t go, a friend or family member went. To go from seeing your children twice a day to not at all is life changing for any being, and it truly was for GG. She died within three weeks of the social isolation imposed upon her by the very real threat of COVID-19. Though my family was permitted to say their goodbyes within the 24 hours before her death, and my aunt was present when she passed, one simply can’t help but name that she died indirectly from coronavirus and the social isolation that is the sad truth for millions of older adults around the world. How will these unrelated COVID deaths be counted? How do I grieve when I cannot attend her memorial in person? And another elder in the family just died, my step-mom’s father, in a similar circumstance. How long will this go on?
The real questions for me are how did this happen to my grandma and why is no one talking about the issue for everyone’s grandmas and grandpas and elders? As a fierce advocate for creating joyful moments in the lives of elders, I had committed my career to combating the negative impacts of isolation and loneliness for older adults even long before COVID-19. As Director of The Hummingbird Project and co-creator of Joyful Moments Therapeutic Activity Cards I spend my days advocating for new connections in a now COVID world: Zoom calls, mail order packets, phone activity sessions, really anything that can provide comfort, engagement, and connection for our elders. And it’s working, which is truly magical, especially for people who reside at home with family or professional caregivers. But why can’t we capture—in a big way—the attention of those in power in community care settings across North America? Why is the occasional Zoom or Facetime with family considered good enough for these beloved elders who are isolated in their rooms? Why is saying goodbye only 24 hours before death good enough?
A COVID-19 Memorial: When I could not attend her funeral in person, I used my creativity as a drama therapist and theatre artist to recreate the experience of a memorial at home.
In her Globe and Mail article titled “ The Aged: Lovely in Theory, Disposable in Fact” Elizabeth Renzetti does not hold back from naming the harsh realities of the impact this pandemic has had on our elders, and the fact that these lives have become disposable due to ageism. Dr. Louise Aronson was not afraid to say something similar in her article titled For Older People, Despair, as Well as COVID-19, Is Costing Lives.
What is the answer?
It’s all the things my beautiful GG taught me: Love. Hard work. Passion. Sass. Fierceness. Joy. Creativity. Spunk. We can, and must, do better by our elders as we move forward in this new world. We must be more creative than ever before, and we must lead with love (and not fear). My grandma’s life was not disposable, and neither is yours. If you haven’t done so already, call your grandma, visit (socially distanced, wear a mask) a neighbor, drop of a bag of goodies for an elder, write postcards for people at the local nursing home. Get inspired by an older adult. Creativity and connection must win this COVID-19 fight before our elders are all gone.