The last few weeks have been unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. A virus has tragically claimed more than 283,000 lives worldwide and slowed a global economy to a grinding halt. Thousands of workers who enjoyed steady jobs are now unemployed and scores of small businesses will likely never reopen. Students are finishing their school year at home while many people scramble for stimulus checks to keep their family afloat.
It will be years, perhaps decades until we know the full extent of the destruction COVID-19 has had on our world. Virtually everyone’s life has been affected. And while I don’t want to diminish the horrific loss of thousands of lives, as a caregiver, I am forced to acknowledge what this deadly virus has stolen from my Father.
Mercifully, neither my Father nor Mother contracted COVID-19. We’ve washed hands, worn masks and gloves, stayed home and even kept hospice personnel from entering our house for a while. But the simple act of withdrawing has had a debilitating effect on my Dad.
For 10 years, my Father has attended Grace Arbor, an adult respite program specifically designed for people with dementia. As soon as participants arrive, volunteers greet them with hugs and smiles and usher them in for coffee and conversation. Their days are filled with crafts and singing, exercises and games. They read Scripture and have discussions. They reminisce about days long ago and celebrate every holiday with flair. They have chili cookoffs and bake dog biscuits for the local animal shelter. They host guest bands and dance groups and celebrate every birthday. As my Father puts it, “it’s like family.”
This month marks 15 years since Dad was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I am convinced that Grace Arbor has played an extraordinary role in helping him hold onto his mental faculties as long as he has. My Father has always been a people person and Grace Arbor gives him the chance to interact with friends and share a laugh. He loves to provide percussion with hand claps while Kevin plays the piano and Lew plays the guitar.
But all that went away in March when the program was forced to close its doors for the safety of participants, who are considered at high risk because of their age and health issues. Grace Arbor’s director and assistant director rose to the challenge and dreamed up a way to stay connected. Every Saturday morning, volunteers place an activity box on the doorstep of each participant with art supplies and instructions. There are clay projects, building blocks, bird silhouettes, tissue paper flowers and watercolors. Those who are able can hop onto social media for exercise videos, Zoom games and weekly devotionals. Every one of these activities is extremely important for people with dementia to maintain their motor skills, creativity and cognition. Simply put, they are a Godsend.
But since we were made for community, nothing can replace human connection. The kind of interaction Mom and I have with Dad is so different than what he enjoys at Grace Arbor. He sees us as the ladies who take care of him, but Grace Arbor folks are his friends. Consequently, I’ve noticed a definite change in my Father. He’s retreating further into himself and his face is sometimes blank. Sadly, this is common for people with dementia. It’s like their personality has vanished and their expressions have gone into hiding. My Father is not alone. All across the country, senior citizens who live in facilities are retreating further into themselves because guidelines now prevent visits from loved ones. As my Father’s hospice nurse put it, “their faces are flat.” They’re more depressed and withdrawn. They don’t understand why their loved ones are no longer visiting and if someone tries to explain it to them, they quickly forget the answer.
Mental and social stimulation are essential for everyone but especially for people with dementia. Without it, regression is inevitable. Who would have thought that a pandemic could hasten the effects of a disease? Senior isolation is also very different from what children and teenagers are experiencing right now. They can easily grab their phones or hop onto social media to connect with friends. But my Father is so confused by technology that he can’t grasp a facetime call. What he needs is face to face.
My hope and prayer is that once Grace Arbor is able to meet again, my Dad will quickly be reacclimated to his social activities and bounce back. But I have no idea if that’s going to happen. So until then, we’ll keep up with the activity box. I’ll keep getting Dad out of the house for exercise and mental stimulation. And I’ll keep trusting in God’s sovereignty and rest in the fact that, pandemic or no pandemic, He will never leave us or forsake us.