June Winston sits outside of her husband, Kenneth’s, room.
Jim Felker hasn’t seen his wife, Jo Ann, since March due to coronavirus restrictions.
June Winston peers into her husband, Kenneth’s, room Bermuda Run. June hasn’t been able to spend time with her husband since March due to coronavirus restrictions in his care facility.
BERMUDA RUN — Jim Felker manages to keep himself busy most days. He’s an active guy, and at 87 years old, pretty light on his feet. Even if he’s lugging a hand-carved cane that he mostly uses to push buttons that automatically open doors.
Felker was stepping lively, nervous energy perhaps, because something on his mind and he wanted to talk while leading an outdoor tour of the retirement community where he and Jo Ann, his bride of 68 years, live — him in a third-floor condo and her in a separate assisted care unit in another building.
“She has Alzheimer’s,” he explained. “It’s a bad disease.”
Rules for nursing homes put in place for the protection of seniors vulnerable to coronavirus complications, well-intentioned though they may be, have had unintended and heartbreaking consequences.
“I haven’t touched her since March 20 when all this began,” Felker said. “I don’t get to see her except through a window. It makes you feel worse than before you went.”
‘All day, every day’
Felker is a thoughtful, considerate man. It’s evident within minutes of meeting him.
He’s given the matter of visitation rules and restrictions a great deal of thought, and he’s shared his ideas with others in the same cruel position.
But before discussing them at length, he wanted his visitors at Bermuda Village to meet a new friend he knew would be sitting outdoors a few hundred yards away.
“She sits outside her husband’s window every day,” he said. “You’re going to like her. This isn’t just about me or my situation. There are millions just like us across the country and people just don’t know or think about us much.”
Just as he’d predicted, June Winston and her daughter Lisa Miller were seated in plastic chairs outside a tightly sealed window.
Winston, upon noticing Felker approaching, pulled her face away from the glass and spoke to her husband Kenneth through the cell phone in her hand. “I’ll be right back. I’m not going anywhere.”
She explained that Kenneth suffered a stroke March 17, three days before the coronavirus shutdown took effect, and that fears about spreading the virus prevented her from seeing him in the hospital and again after he was able to move to assisted living.
Winston has been coming to this window, through the cold of early spring and the rising summer heat “every day, just about all day.” She’s careful — she had a skin cancer a few years back — and takes every precaution.
But she will not consider missing a visit, even through a window.
“We’ve been married 681/2 years,” she said. “Got married in Christmas of ’51.”
While it’s heartbreaking to see couples who’ve been inseparable for decades forced apart by a pandemic, it’s also heart-warming to witness their devotion to one another.
They all understand the reasons for the restrictions and the lockdowns. They’re not blaming anybody, most definitely not the senior living centers and nursing homes that they call home. Officials are only following guidelines in the interest of keeping their residents as safe as possible.
Still, they would like some reassurance that it won’t last forever. Rumors about possible easing of the rules are the only available information. There’s been no discussion or setting of any target dates, unlike other activities.
“You’ll hear frustration in both our voices,” Miller said as her mom waved to make sure Kenneth could still see them.
“We don’t mean to be. We know we’re extremely fortunate that he’s receiving great care.”
Mother and daughter know, too, that there are other senior citizens who aren’t as fortunate. But that doesn’t make the pain of separation any easier to take.
“We haven’t been able to touch him or love on him, and that’s what makes it so hard,” Miller said.
Winston has another theory, one that medical professionals know has scientific merit. Affection and signs of support go a long way toward helping recovery.
“I know he’d be getting better faster if I could be with him,” she said. “I know the nurses are doing a great job but they have others to look after, too.”
While mother and daughter were talking, Felker slipped off toward the back of the building. He’d hoped to catch a glimpse of Jo Ann. “She can’t speak, but I know she still knows me,” he said. “I feel like maybe she thinks she’s been abandoned.”
He didn’t say so — he didn’t need to — but Felker knows that time is the most valuable commodity of all. And that’s what is driving his desire to share his thoughts about separation.
In a perfect world, or even a better one, couples such as the Felkers and the Winstons, would be allowed short in-person visits.
And his reasons for saying so make sense. Hospitals have opened to limited numbers of visitors, so why shouldn’t nursing homes?
He’s not saying throw the doors open to extended families (or even adult children and grandchildren) for unregulated visits. His preference, for now, would be to allow married couples to see each other in person.
Monitor temperatures and take all the precautions put in elsewhere, he said. Let husbands and wives who are both in retirement centers to sit together in the same room — even if it’s only once or twice a week.
“I don’t see any difference myself,” he said. “We’re all in lockdown. All I do is go to the grocery or the doctor; there’s nowhere else to go. I’m not going to carry the virus into places. It’s the workers who are bringing it into nursing homes because they’re the ones in contact with people outside.”
In a perfect world, someone in authority would hear what he and Winston have to say and at least consider it. He name-dropped state Sen. Joyce Krawiec in particular since she “helped open the hospitals.”
As Felker was sharing perfectly valid views, he moved to a corner of the Japanese garden that he can see from his window. He pointed to a corner where he and many other residents have endowed some plantings to honor his wife. He chose as a centerpiece a small stone lighthouse and he was excited because he could see that an electrician was running a line to it so it could be a true working beacon in the darkness.
“She loves lighthouses,” he explained. “We traveled a lot, and every time we saw one she wanted to go see it, climb the stairs and take pictures.”
And then, without really meaning to, Felker gave the very reason to consider allowing husbands and wives short in-person visits.
“During the daytime, I do pretty good,” he said. “You have things to do. But at nighttime, that’s when stuff goes through your head, the depressed thoughts.”
His voice trailed off, and he let the rest of it drift away. He didn’t finish, but he didn’t need to; anyone who’s ever reached out in the darkness to touch their partner would understand.