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Elmhurst Residents: Life Experience Key in Coping With Pandemic

WHEELING — Now that the COVID-19 vaccines are being administered at a rapid pace in the Wheeling area, Jamie Crow, executive director of Elmhurst, The House of Friendship, an assisted living residence for older adults, is breathing a sigh of cautious relief.

“Over the past year, our world has been turned upside down. The COVID pandemic sent my staff into over-drive as we did everything possible to keep our residents safe from this virus,” Crow relates, noting that it was not until January 2021 that 19 residents came down with symptoms and all, but one person, recovered.

However, the veteran administrator said she was most amazed by how the residents themselves coped with weeks and weeks of confinement to their individual apartments. Communal gathering was banned by state regulations. Meals were served in residents’ rooms by staff in full protective garments, masks, and shields.

“It was an enormous task for the staff, not only fulfilling their normal duties in their departments, but also going the extra mile to sanitize everything in the house, getting tested twice a week, and still are, plus working hard to keep up the residents’ spirits as frontline workers.

But how did the residents, ranging in age from mid-70s to 101, cope? What gave them the strength and fortitude to maintain their lives and positive attitudes in what, at times, seemed like solitary confinement?

“The war, for one thing,” comments John Lucas, a 95 year-old WWII army veteran who was among the second wave of soldiers in France after the Battle of the Bulge. “I’ve lived through some rough times, worse than what we have had here (during COVID),” he mused.

Raised by a single mother and drafted out of high school at 18, Lucas waxes philosophical about the quarantine at Elmhurst, noting, ” I just try to take whatever comes up and do the best I can. A lot of people have had a rougher life than me. Whatever comes along in life, you have to take it.”

Several other Elmhurst residents say the upheavals caused by WWII made them willing to cope without complaining during the quarantine. Rationing and knowing you couldn’t have everything you wanted as a child stuck with Ila McConnaughey, 91, as she lived through the past year. Jessie Coleman was a 5 year-old during the war years. She recalls the frequent loud air raid drill sirens and the closing of curtains so no light escaped as “scary.”

Mary Sacco has the longest resident tenure at Elmhurst, 17 years. The 95-year-old former hospital volunteer has limited eyesight and is unable to read any longer. During the long months of quarantine, Mary found enjoyment in watching television, noting, “TV is learning.” She especially liked the Weather Channel’s program on how to survive in precarious situations. Although she missed seeing family members, especially the frequent visits from great-grandchildren, Mary said, “I’ve had a good life. I’ve had it all…everything life has to offer, and that has helped me get through this (COVID). God, too, has the answers to everything. You can ask, but you need to take the time to listen because things don’t always come as soon as you would like.” Even before COVID, Mary would attend the thrice weekly exercise classes. She also spent nearly an hour on the treadmill in 15 minute increments. She always has exercised by herself in her apartment and continues to do so.

Judy McNabb and her husband, Bob, moved into Elmhurst in August 2019. Bob, a jovial former high school principal, who died a year later unrelated to COVID, had memory issues. Because they had each other, Judy and Bob made the best of the days confined to their apartment.

They spent hours sitting together on the couch talking about the past and their lives together, much more than they ever had, Judy said. They also spoke to their children, daily. In the afternoons, they would take a nap. During those confinement monts, Judy created a nightly ritual for the two of them. “Each night I would fix us drinks — a Cosmo for me and a rum and coke for Bob with peanut butter crackers as a snack. We would spend the evening reminiscing.”

When Bob’s memory worsened, he would not always recognize Judy and referred to her as “I know you are a good friend,” Judy laughingly recalls. Judy believes that going over their old memories “kept us going.”

Because her eyesight now makes reading difficult, Judy, an avid reader, said acquiring audio books saved me.” Judy especially looked forward to time spent with Blue Sky physical therapist Lindsay Dobbs who did in-room therapy sessions with residents. Judy received an “Alexa” device as a gift. It plays music by voice control. “Whenever I feel like I want some exercise, I will tell Alexa to play me some Frank Sinatra and I will dance around the room!”

Sleeping more than usual was a tactic used by a lot of residents to pass the time. Others relied on their strength faith in God to give them the fortitude to cope. Millie Scaffidi and Shirley Milton were both socially active during their lives. Both credit prayer as an important factor in surviving the solitude.

For Scaffidi, the EWTN Catholic television channel was hugely important. “If it weren’t for EWTN and daily calls from my children, I don’t know what I would have done.” Milton recalls feeling “trapped, like I was in jail” when the initial lockdown was put into place. Daily devotions and frequent calls from her family and friends were important. Those on the outside, she notes, “had no idea what it was like.”

Naomi Durrance was a young teenager in her native England during the war. Her parents were physicians who, she said, “Raised us to learn very adult things at an early age.” Tragically, her mother was murdered during this time. “The war made you grow up real fast,” she candidly recalls. When she was home from boarding school, her father made Naomi and her two older brothers sleep in the basement, covering them with mattresses and iron railings. There were several “near misses” during the bombings by German planes, one which landed next door and rained down debris on her upstairs bedroom.

Coping with COVID was “no big deal,” she said. “Frankly I’ve been through much worse, but I trusted the people at Elmhurst and did what I was asked to do.”

Maintaining some semblance of normalcy could be found in simple things for some who call Elmhurst home. For Ruth Vensel it was being able to continue working on large puzzle pictures. After room confinement was put into place, Ruth was surprised and pleased when the staff brought the puzzle table and boxes of puzzles into her room for her to work on. Many residents enjoyed the activity packets the program staff delivered to them, as well as the daily in-room mail delivery. The staff also conducted a variety of door-to-door events, including ice cream sundae afternoons, root beer float carts, and a cruise to Hawaii with specialty drinks.

Wearing a face mask this past year brought back uncomfortable memories of childhood illnesses and the resulting limitations imposed on Jerry Mulhern, 82 who survived the lockdown reading and listening to music. “When I was little, I had a fear of the (ether) mask that they put on my face in the hospital. Wearing a mask now reminds me of what I missed growing up and the idea that I was different than other kids,” Mulhern related. Mulhern and his late wife are well-known in the community for starting a summer tennis clinic for youngsters.

Residents are now enjoying communal dining, activities, and visitors, abiding by all protocols to continue keeping them safe. All residents and staff are fully vaccinated. Warmer weather will soon beckon the residents to outside seating areas and to the stately front porch at Elmhurst, where, Crow said, “We love to be together.”

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