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Hugs from a distance
The pain of having loved ones in a nursing home during the pandemic
Ned Rinalducci with his parents during happier times.
Tammy Stokes visiting her mom socially distanced.
Tammy Stokes visiting her mom socially distanced.

BEFORE the pandemic started, Chief Judge Tammy Stokes would visit her mom, Ruby, daily at Azalealand. Once the pandemic started, everything changed.  

“I had the longstanding routine of seeing my mom two to three times daily, generally centered upon lunch and dinner so I could be company for her, and feed her,” says Stokes. “I was as dependent upon my visits to her as she was. I saw her so often for myself as much as it was to care for her.” 

“From March 1 until mid-March or so, the routine pretty much was uninterrupted. Then came the time for no visitors, not even family,” laments Stokes. 

“In my mom’s decline, she lost speech, much vision, and even the ability to hold her head upright.  I know she missed me, and I could not explain what was happening in a way she could understand.”

Stokes is not alone. Approximately 30% of the U.S. population provide care for elderly, disabled, or chronically ill family members. The average time spent being a family caregiver is 20 hours per week. The pandemic has severely impacted the ability of family members to be able to care for their loved ones.

“Fortunately, Azalealand allowed families to make reservations to see our loved ones on the patio with social distancing, of course,” says Stokes. “Azalealand has a really nice big patio that has shady spots and sunny spots. I never thought I would have been so grateful for a patio with a fence. The staff would place the residents about 8 feet on their side of the fence.”

Stokes has a playlist of her mom’s favorite songs and would place her phone as far as she could reach inside of the fence so that her mom could hear the music. 

“She would tap her feet and give me a hint of a smile. I lived for that hour each day, and often cried in my car afterwards.”  

Ruby Williams passed away on June 5. “The staff from top to bottom were professional, caring, and so good with the residents. I did not worry about my mom’s care, and I so appreciated the accommodations they made for us. I am forever grateful.”

Approximately two-thirds of family caregivers are women. Many have children and grandchildren living with them. The responsibilities of middle-age Americans have increased as they care for aging parents while also supporting their young adult children who struggle to achieve financial independence.

Ned Rinalducci is part of the one-third of men who are caregivers. And with two adult children who rely on him, and a stepson in middle school living in his home, he is part of the sandwich generation raising a young child and/or financially supporting a grown child, while helping to care for a parent. 

Rinalducci also lost a parent during the pandemic. His dad passed away on March 25, leaving his mom a widow.

“I was able to see her on the day that my father passed away, thank God,” recalls Rinalducci. “She could not have handled that or navigated what needed doing on her own. And we all needed each other on that day.”

“Funerals and services for our loved ones are part of the grieving process. We were unable to experience that together as a family. It is a horrible thing to lose a parent and then not be able to physically be there to comfort the other parent,” mourned Rinalducci. 

“It was a very difficult decision on whether or not my mother would stay at Buckingham once my dad passed. She made the decision to stay for now as she has a support system there and it was her home with my dad. We will have a small family service next summer in New Hampshire, assuming the pandemic allows for it.”

Since his father’s death, Rinalducci has only been allowed to see his mom, Anne, three times from a safe social distance while wearing a mask.

Rinalducci explains, “There was a short period of outdoor, socially distanced, and masked visits that Buckingham was arranging by appointment, but they have suspended those with the local uptick in COVID-19 cases. We all miss seeing each other, spending time together, and the physical contact of just a hug.”

“The fact that I cannot physically see her or check on her in the same way is the biggest difference.” 

Rinalducci was used to visiting his parents several times weekly. “Now it’s just checking in by phone every day. The whole purpose of my parents moving to Savannah was so that I could better take care of them, so it’s been hard.”

The Rinalducci family now celebrate birthdays and holidays over FaceTime. 

“My sister, my wife, and I will get her grandchildren, and sometimes even nieces and nephews, on a big FaceTime call to sing happy birthday and so she can see everyone and take part. Her own birthday was four days after we lost my father, so it was incredibly important to everyone in my family to connect with her on that day.”

Rinalducci received some good news: “I just got an email, Buckingham is starting their visitations again this week. Outside, 6 feet away, across a table with masks. Better than nothing.” 

All-important hugs will still not be allowed.

Emily Calhoun visiting her mom through a window.
Emily Calhoun visiting her mom through a window.

Emily Calhoun’s mother is at Summer Breeze. “My mom entered Summer Breeze from rehab at the very time Governor Kemp was shutting down the state. At the time, she was recovering from a mild stroke and had a broken toe.”

Calhoun talks with her mom several times a day, but misses not being able to hug her mom. Summer Breeze takes photos of residents and posts them on social media so that family can see their loved ones.

Calhoun is understated. “I really haven’t experienced hardship, I just miss hugging her!”

“I go to the store for her now, like I did before. Only difference is someone meets me at the door to get the bags, instead of me taking them to her,” explains Calhoun. 

“We supply everything like Depends, shampoo, toothpaste, soap - all the items.  I always put some dark chocolate in her bags.”  

While the pandemic continues with no apparent end in sight, more than 65 million people in the United States face similar situations to Stokes, Rinalducci, and Calhoun.

Our family is one of those. My mother-in-law, who resides at Rivers Edge, fell and fractured her back; she is currently at Candler Hospital. 

No visitors are allowed and we have had to rely on strangers to provide updates. She will be moving to rehab this week, where we will continue to not be able to have face-to-face contact with her.