By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
During the past year, Angela Wong, 51, often drove 30 miles each way to drop off chao shao bao, shumai, face cream, candied ginger, and other things for her mother. Occasionally, she would see her through a window in the lobby of the nursing home, where she is locked down. But now that Kin On is opening up for family members, Wong knows this: she will have a chance to see her mother, Lee Shee Lo, 96, in person before she dies.
“During the pandemic, I was so worried about my mother, any time I got a call from Kin On staff, given her age, I would worry and feel dread that it could happen any time and we’ve gone so far without seeing each other,” she said.
Wong is not the only one to feel a sense of relief. As of March 22, Washington state ended its lock down of nursing homes and long-term care communities, and family members of residents are expected to return to visiting in person.
It will bring an end to a year of brutal separation for many families. But it will also test the resolve and countermeasures of nursing home staff and management as the coronavirus still bears a potent and potentially devastating threat.
Many retirement centers have found ways to keep families in touch. And while these solutions have allowed for some communication, in some cases, they have also highlighted the lack of real intimacy.
At Aegis Gardens, an Asian-themed assisted living and memory care community in Newcastle, management devised an “outdoor living room” on the back patio. Residents sat behind glass barriers while family members visited. In one case, an old woman just emerging from memory care slowly recognized her son as he put his hand up against the glass.
“I can’t believe you’ve come,” she said before breaking down into tears.
Nancy Lee, the director of life enrichment, said the event was “life changing for the community.” But, she added, staff had to watch carefully to make sure no one went around the barriers to try to hug each other.
Bob and Diane Cihak, 80 and 78, also at Aegis Gardens, have remained in contact with their six kids and 17 grandchildren through Zoom calls.
“I just want to touch my grandchildren again,” said Diane.
Still, the reopening will not be easy.
The impact of COVID on congregate care has been staggering. Estimates range that more than one third to over 40% of all COVID deaths in the United States took place in nursing homes or assisted living communities.
Now, guidelines for reopening have not yet been clarified by the government, said Boliver Choi, nursing home administrator at Kin On. And an outbreak at a nursing home in Kentucky, which just reopened, has made him very cautious.
“Because the law is from Medicare and Medicaid, we have to open,” he said. “But there is no directive about how many people we have to admit at one time. So we’re going to start slowly.”
Choi plans to admit one to two people per day in the first week and closely monitor.
Nikkei Manor, an assisted living community where many Japanese Americans live, has decided not to open yet.
Despite a vaccination rate of 100% and no COVID cases over the past year, according to Bryce Seidl, the interim executive director of Keiro Northwest/Nikkei Manor, his staff is waiting for more clarity about the rules.
Kris Engskov, president of Aegis Living, said in an email, “We are finalizing our protocol and best practices so we can begin coordinating visits as soon as possible. While we are eager to bring residents and families together right away, we also must be certain we are doing this in the safest way possible for all.”
Some residents, while enjoying the activities of their community and expressing gratitude for staff, look forward to resuming outside activities.
One 86-year-old resident of Nikkei Manor, who asked not to use her name, was incarcerated at the age of 8 in a concentration camp with her family during World War II. Her sister died there. And her mother died several years after they were released. Now, she looks forward to playing cards again with her friends, one of whom she’s known since third grade.
The six women used to gather once a week for an entire day to play Shanghai, a form of Rummy, at one of their houses.
“One of my friend’s sons used to brag that if his mother won a single dollar, she would brag about it all week,” she said.
Wong, on the other hand, who drops dim sum and home cooked food off for her mother, does not have time to wait. In some sense, she never has.
Her father, born in 1902, was 20 years older than her mother after an arranged marriage in China. Then, after the family immigrated to Seattle, he went to Cuba to work. But he was trapped there by the communist revolution, and returned 20 years later. She was born a year or so later. So when he died, at the age of 85, she was still in high school.
“I felt I never quite fit in,” she said. “My peers always thought my parents were my grandparents.”
Caring for her parents, along with two sisters who are 20 years older, has been something of a lifelong task. In years past, she paid her sisters’ bills and translated for her parents who spoke little English.
On the last day she saw her mother in person, she took the day off to go with her to a doctor’s appointment. Afterwards, she bought her a latte and oatmeal raisin cookies.
But as in some traditional Chinese families, love and affection were not often expressed through words.
“We don’t say I love you to each other, but she knows by my actions I love her, she knows I take care of business for our family,” she said. “But if I knew it was coming to the end, and I were by her side, it might come out my mouth. I might say I love you, don’t worry about me.”
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.