Holiday Cheer

Safely visiting Savannah’s seniors

The well-being of our parents and grandparents has been a high priority for many of us throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

We want to protect our most vulnerable population — but we miss them dearly, especially as the holidays approach. Those working in senior living facilities understand and share these feelings, and have stretched far beyond their normal job descriptions to care for our loved ones, keep them safe and allay our worries during this unprecedented time.

Yetta Tureck, age 103 1/2, is a resident at Buckingham South. Her daughter, Robin Rackoff, says, “Everyone knows my mother, not just because she’s older, but because she’s amazing.”

Rackoff would normally see her “very social” mother about four times per week. “I’d sometimes just run in for five minutes to chat, because she was so busy going from chair Zumba to bingo to dominoes.” Then suddenly the world shut down, and the two couldn’t see each other for two months.

“It was heartbreaking for both of us,” Rackoff recalls. She and her mother would connect on FaceTime with the help of staff, but her mother has partial hearing loss and didn’t quite grasp the concept. “She would say to me, ‘When will I see you? Am I ever going to see you again?’ And I would think to myself, ‘When will I see her? Am I ever going to see her again?’”

These things weighed heavily on Buckingham South’s director, Rita Slatus. She saw the pandemic was having a psychological effect on residents and hired both a licensed clinical social worker and a therapist.

“So, besides everyone making sure we’re visiting more frequently and talking and holding everyone’s hands, there’s now a therapist available every day, and they’re targeting those whom the staff know have been feeling that sense of isolation or loneliness,” Slatus says.

Catherine Renner’s mother, Sarah Wyant, is 92 and has dementia. Renner missed her mom during quarantine, but was thankful for the extra precautions. Staff helped Renner and Wyant FaceTime, and Wyant recognized her daughter’s face.

“I don’t think she could tell you my name,” Renner says, “but she knows that I belong to her.” Now that they’re able to visit outside, it’s been an even more meaningful touchstone. “Even though I’m in a mask, she recognizes me. And I’ll be seeing her on Thanksgiving and Christmas, again on the patio.”

With scheduled outdoor visitation now permitted at Buckingham South (with strict precautions in place), Slatus says, “It’s like a ray of sunshine has come through the dark clouds. The residents and families are in seventh heaven to see each other. We have tears coming down.”

Rackoff concurs. “I’m a crier, but my mother never cries, and the two of us were just standing there sobbing.”

She also acknowledges the hard work that’s gone into keeping her mother and other residents healthy both mentally and physically. “The activities staff is absolutely tireless in going from floor to floor trying to keep everybody happy.”

Jessica Schroyer, Director of Sales and Marketing at Harmony at Savannah, says the same of their activities staff and how they’ve adapted to modified activities.

“Our life enrichment director, Elinor Campbell, dressed as a flight attendant one day to deliver snacks and drinks from her ‘beverage cart,’” Schroyer says. “She also dressed as a carhop for Milkshake Day, again going door-to-door. And our executive director, Allison Adams, donned an I Love Lucy costume and delivered little chocolate candies.”

The creativity isn’t limited to staff, though. Families, too, are coming up with new ways to reach out, Schroyer says. One family member pulled their truck up into the parking spot outside their loved one’s patio and set up on the tailgate to chat and engage while distanced; another resident’s grandson played music below her balcony; another family brought grandchildren to color with chalk on the sidewalk below their grandma’s sunroom.

“The blessing in disguise has been helping people to not take their parents for granted,” Slatus says. “When you can see them at any time, you’re not as conscious about ‘when was the last time I saw Mom.’ Whereas when you’re limited and there’s a pandemic out there, it arouses and awakens within your soul that realization of how precious our parents are, and how dear and limited our time with them can be.”

“It’s hard for us, and it’s hard for all families to be physically separated from their loved ones and not be able to hug and have that intimate personal time with their parent,” Renner confides, “but when I think about the suffering that seems to go along with this particular virus, I don’t want my mom to go out of the world that way. She is happy, the staff takes really good care of her, and, because I feel very confident with those circumstances, I can live with the type of visiting that I’m able to do because I know she’s in good hands.”

Everyone from directors to medical technicians to nurses to housekeepers is committed to their patients, Slatus says, and it shows. “The compliment we keep getting is, ‘I can’t get over how happy Mom is.”

Photograph by Angela Hopper Lee

More from Jessica Lynn Curtis

From Syria to Savannah: Part II

Photography by Molly Hayden In December 2001, Ghassan Mahmoud* was a single...
Read More