Alone, but not lonely

JuliAnne Thomas, right, visits her mother, A.J. Walter, outside her room at Legacy Lodge on March 23. Thomas has been visiting her mother outside her room almost and every day since the assisted living facility restricted access due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since Walter needs to keep her window closed, they use their cell phones during their in-person conversations. Photo by Bradly J. Boner, Jackson Hole News&Guide.

Elders display resilience, grit and a lot of hope in COVID self-isolation

JACKSON — It’s been over a month since Jim Janak was able to hold his granddaughter.

Before the spread of COVID-19 caused nationwide lockdowns and forced people to stay at home, Janak’s family would visit him several times each week.

“This has all obviously changed that,” said his daughter-in-law, Emily.

Janak, 62, lives at Legacy Lodge at Jackson Hole, an assisted living facility in the Rafter J subdivision. To protect their seniors — a population especially susceptible to COVID-19 — the staff at Legacy Lodge shut the doors to all nonessential visitors on March 11.

Restrictions have tightened since then. Residents are not confined to their rooms, but 6 feet of separation is maintained between residents at all times. Only medically necessary appointments are kept. People entering and leaving the building are asked their travel history and screened for high temperatures.

For the lodge’s 36 seniors that means not being able to be with family during a time of anxiety and uncertainty. It’s a feeling shared by many elders across the valley, some of whom who are sheltering at home alone or are otherwise cut off from their usual social and familial groups.

“It’s such a hard time right now,” said Nikki Escalada, the director of life enrichment at Legacy Lodge. “Everybody is feeling it, but it’s especially difficult for people who can’t see their families, regardless of age.”

But Janak’s son, Adam, and daughter-in-law found a creative way for him to visit his 14-month-old granddaughter, Cece.

On the weekends they bring Cece to the lodge and stand outside a window on the ground floor. From inside Janak presses his face up against the glass.

Just inches away, Emily Janak uses her cellphone to call her father-in-law. She puts the call on speaker so Cece can hear her grandfather’s voice. From there they try to visit as they normally would.

“There’s not much you can do,” Janak said. “You just got to deal with it.”

When concerns about COVID-19 first began to circulate, Janak was offered space at his son and daughter-in-law’s home, but he was adamant about remaining at Legacy Lodge, where he could be with friends.

“He preferred to stay at Legacy Lodge,” Emily Janak said. “To us that underscores how happy he is there, which means the world.”

With limited opportunities to leave the lodge, Janak and his best friend, 91-year-old Charlie Edwards, are spending their days playing bingo or watching movies — card games and puzzles have been banned — and using FaceTime to speak to their loved ones.

But while Janak and Edwards have each other as well as the residents and staff at Legacy Lodge to maintain a sense of community, other Jackson seniors are more isolated.

Dorothy Tanner said she was holding up just fine through the self-quarantine forced by the threat of coronavirus.

“Oh, I’m hanging in there,” she said with a laugh.

The 77-year-old Jackson native lives by herself in a mobile home on the north end of town. She normally loves living alone, without so much as a pet, but she said the isolation order has made things challenging.

Before the quarantine, Tanner said, she was “up and gone all day.”

“Anything I could do to stay busy and active,” she said. “It’s hard to live alone, because I’m a people person.”

Previously a regular at lunches and bingo nights at the Senior Center of Jackson Hole, Tanner has had to come up with new ways to fill her free time. She still wakes up early to read Scripture, but the afternoons are a mix of crossword puzzles, cleaning, phone calls and long walks.

“[I’m] putzing around, trying to stay busy,” Tanner said.

Tanner said that when the first restaurants and stores began to close their doors, she felt fearful. She has lived through big health crises but has never experienced a global need for social distance.

“I’ve never seen so much panic and so much shutdown in my whole life,” she said.

“That shock and panic started to work on me a little bit, but then I sat back and thought, ‘Hey, I’m OK. I’ve got my home, my food storage, I can get around.’ … I started counting my blessings.”

For Tanner the most challenging part of the quarantine has been remembering all the new rules. She said it can be a struggle to maintain distance from other people when she ventures outside her home.

“I have to rethink and make sure everything is as clean as possible. [I rethink] what I’m going to do and how I’m going to do it,” Tanner said.

She hasn’t had any trouble with meals or other basics. She credited Smith’s Food and Drug, which began blocking off the 7 a.m. hour on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings for seniors and other high-risk individuals to shop for groceries.

Tanner also is thankful for the Senior Center. While the building itself is locked and transportation services have been suspended, the center continues to provide curbside pickup breakfasts and lunches, as well as a meal delivery service. All told, the center provides over 100 meals each day to seniors in the Jackson area.

Deb Hill, who lives across the street from the Senior Center, said the meals have been a lifesaver.

“[The meals] make me feel a lot less isolated, because they’re really nice meals,” Hill said. “It’s almost like eating out.”

The 71-year-old Jackson native said the curbside pickup provides an opportunity to see friends from the Senior Center. During a quarantine that face-to-face interaction, even from 6 feet apart, can be crucial.

“I shudder to think if COVID came into the building I’m living in,” Hill said. “I could see how half the people who live here would probably die. It’s horrible to think about. The only solution is the isolation, as rotten as it is. It’s not fun, but it is what we have to do.”

Like other seniors, and the wider Jackson population, Hill said maintaining her sanity throughout a lockdown has been a balancing act. For most it’s about staving off boredom. She admits she struggles to find “some kind of a focus for the day.”

Still, Hill said, the mood among her fellow seniors is cheerful, given the circumstances.

“They’re bored and want it to be over, but they’re upbeat,” she said. “Just seeing each other over [at the Senior Center] is helping.”

Becky Zaist, the director of the Senior Center, said the core staff members have continued to show up to prepare and distribute meals. While they work the phone has been ringing “off the hook.”

The calls are overwhelmingly from seniors checking in on the staff.

“People just want to talk, more so than ever,” Zaist said. “You have to give the time. It’s so important.”

At Legacy Lodge, Escalada also spoke about the importance of helping seniors maintain their mental health through a medical crisis.

“As you age there are a lot of factors for health, and if you take any one of those away you can age much more quickly,” Escalada said. “Emotional well-being is a huge factor.

“We have to make sure we’re paying attention to that, that we didn’t miss anything,” she said. “Otherwise there will be repercussions whether they catch this thing or not.”

When it comes to maintaining mental health, almost everyone agrees: Social media is a lifesaver.

Especially for seniors who live alone, the ability to visit with friends and family using FaceTime, Zoom or other video chat apps has been crucial to easing their isolation.

“Emotionally, mentally, psychologically, I’m doing pretty good now,” Tanner said.

Tanner champions common sense. As long as people continue to practice social distancing and properly sanitize their hands and belongings, she said, she believes the town of Jackson will pull through.

“This too shall pass,” she said.

Hill said she is no longer feeling nervous. While she doesn’t think Jackson will emerge from the quarantine totally unscathed, she said she trusts the town and the country to rise to the challenge.

“We are in good hands,” she said. “I feel really confident about this community, I do.”