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Stolen independence: The elderly and immunocompromised cope with COVID-19
Betty Dunn.

BETTY DUNN is one of the smartest people I know. And at 90 years old, she has decades worth of wisdom.

Since the pandemic started, she has been isolated in her home with her cat Rascal.  They live in the same river home that Dunn purchased in 1982.  She is the matriarch of her neighborhood, and of her family.

“A mask is unattractive, but so is death,” says Dunn. 

“I was not afraid of polio, this I am afraid of because it is spreading so rapidly,” explains Dunn.  “During the polio epidemic people went by the rules, right now we are not going by the rules.”

“I would love to get my hair done more often,” laments Dunn.  Before the pandemic, visiting her hair stylist was a weekly occurrence.    

Betty Dunn is one of the 16% of Chatham County residents over the age of 65. They have been forced to shelter in place since March 14 by order of Governor Kemp.

Dunn concludes, “I am a people person, I love being with people.  It is like a punishment for me to be sheltered in place, being with people keeps your mind going.”

Others included in the shelter in place order are people who live in a nursing home or long-term care facility; people with chronic lung disease, moderate to severe asthma, severe heart disease, people who are immunocompromised, class III or severe obesity, and people with diabetes, liver disease, or those with chronic kidney disease undergoing dialysis.

Due to heart and kidney disease, Joy Kerkhoff has also been sheltering in place for over four months by order of the governor.  

“Because I don’t leave the house, I feel very isolated, and at times lonely,” says Kerkhoff.  

Before the global pandemic started, Joy and her husband Paul, would go to dinner once a week with their closest friends.   

Joy Kerkhoff.
Joy Kerkhoff.

“I have always been very social, and not being able to enjoy dinner in a restaurant with friends, or go to a movie is difficult.  I fill my time watching too much TV and working, I teach governmental procurement courses online.  I was fortunate to work on a team developing a new course at the beginning of the pandemic, which filled a lot of my time.”

“I get very angry when I hear about people not willing to wear a mask, or those who take unnecessary risks by socializing at bars or large gatherings, because it puts me at a higher risk,” asserts Kerkhoff. 

“My fear of COVID-19 is anxiety producing.  The more this disease spreads, the closer it gets to me.”  

“I have experienced being on a ventilator, heavily sedated, and I can tell you it’s debilitating and something I wouldn’t want anyone to experience.  I gradually came out of the sedation while the ventilator was still in and you have to focus on letting the machine work.  

“The people who choose to not wear masks and comply with proper social distancing are ignorant and gullible because they believe all of the disinformation out there.”

The Kerkhoff family goes on an annual camping trip to the Smoky Mountains with friends - this year it is a no-go due to coronavirus.  

Joy orders the groceries online, and her husband, Paul, goes to Kroger where they put them in his vehicle.  Going inside stores can be risky.  Her daughters have visited a couple of times, but remain vigilant and careful.  A close friend visited in April, but only stayed for a few minutes, and they were careful to remain 6 feet apart.  

Many who are sheltered in place felt hopeful when Mayor Van Johnson issued an executive order requiring people to wear face coverings.  It was disappointing to many of those same folks when Governor Kemp took action against Savannah and other cities requiring face masks to be worn in public.  

“Governor Kemp is too concerned with following the political path versus the health and well-being of his state’s citizens,” Kerkhoff angrily says. 

“Governor Cuomo is more willing to help Atlanta than Kemp, and so it goes.  Living in the County, I was happy to see that Chatham County Chair and Commission were going to consider enacting a mask mandate.  But now that will never happen since our idiot governor has ordered no local government can require mask wearing.  We are doomed!  And I will never be able to leave my house.”

There are over 46,000 people in Chatham County over 65, and thousands more who are ordered to shelter in place due to chronic medical conditions.  

Anne Rinalducci.
Anne Rinalducci.

Anne Rinalducci and her husband moved to Buckingham South seven months ago.

In March he passed away, and Anne has been alone with her cat, Max (short for Maximilian) since.   

“My cat has given me a lot of comfort, I am lucky, he sits and waits for me,” says Rinalducci.  

“I miss my everyday life, my family, and going to the store”, regrets Rinalducci.  “I miss getting out and walking around the stores.  I’m a shopper and I like to shop; I don’t always buy something, but I like to look.”

Her meals are served in her room instead of the community dining room, and there are limited activities versus the robust schedule that they had before the pandemic started.    

Anne has taught some of the other residents to play mahjong, bridge, and double solitaire. 

“I have to have people around me, I am a game player, I play double solitaire twice a day with another resident.”

“The hardest part is the containment, I have never been a person who likes being alone,” says Rinalducci.  “It is confining.  If you leave, they won’t let you back in.  The biggest thing I miss is my family.”  

“I don’t like quiet, I am so used to having someone with me,” mourns Rinalducci.  She was married to her husband, Ed, for 58 years - the couple met in college, and their first date was to the movies.   

“I Listen to CNN and it is very depressing.  I want to know what is going on,” says Rinalducci.  “I do not like our President, and I don’t like what he is doing.”

“This is more confining than anything I have ever done before”, she concludes.  “I know that I have to do these things for everyone’s health.”

When you age or have chronic illness, independence and being able to do things for yourself is something that you fiercely protect.  Not only has coronavirus forced isolation, but it has also stolen independence. 

Just getting basic needs for you and your pets becomes more difficult, and you have to rely on the kindness of other people.    

My own mother-in-law, Peggy Edenfield, is isolated at Rivers Edge.  I asked her what she would want to do if she could, “I would go to Walgreens and just look around.”  Over four months in solitude, and she just wants to go to a drug store.   

My husband, Steve, and I are also sheltered in place.  Steve for severe heart disease, and me for autoimmune disease.  Like many other Americans, gardening and baking bread have become new hobbies as we wait on a vaccine.