When Betty Aguilar and her family brought birthday signs outside Our Lady of Peace for her sister Linda Thompson, they didn’t know it would be their last time together.
“The last time we saw her, she was smiling and happy crying through a window and we told her we would see her soon and we would put her arms around her, and that didn’t happen, but she was in a good space, she was in a good place,” Aguilar said.
Thompson, who turned 66 last Sunday, died suddenly Friday of a heart attack.
“She didn’t suffer, she didn’t feel it coming, it just happened and she was gone,” Aguilar said. “So we’re all sort of still letting that sink in and it comes like waves of sadness. It’s like being in the ocean during the hurricane — you’re OK for a few minutes, and then it just overwhelms you.”
Like assisted living and nursing home facilities across the country, Our Lady of Peace Retirement Community in Albemarle County has restricted visitors, canceled all group activities and communal dining and implemented health screenings for residents, staff and health care personnel amid the coronavirus pandemic.
As of Saturday, there were 739 positive cases of the coronavirus in the state. About 31% of the cases are in adults 60 and older.
Two senior facilities in the area — The Lodge at Old Trail and The Colonnades — each have had a positive case of COVID-19.
Aguilar’s mother, Adilia Thompson, lives at RoseWood Village in Albemarle, and Aguilar and her siblings put up a sign that reads, “We love you to the moon & back” outside their mother’s window.
“It’s causing a little bit of confusion for her that nobody is coming to see her and so we decided to put up the sign outside,” Aguilar said. “And on some level, she understands that COVID-19 is what’s keeping us apart, but it’s still hard.”
RoseWood Village, an assisted living provider with two locations in Albemarle County, usually has outings and group activities for its residents, but much of that has had to stop.
“They’re doing hallway bingo and they’re providing FaceTime with families, but it’s not the same thing as putting your arms around them,” Aguilar said.
Friends of Aguilar have sent Adilia Thompson, who’s also known as Mamasita, cards from across the country and the world.
“She’s got them pinned up all over her wall in her room — cards, birthday cards, Mother’s Day cards, art, little drawings and mostly postcards — from people who took just five minutes,” she said. “I wish everybody would do that, just write a card or a letter to people that are shut in. Reach out to your loved ones, they’re lonely. They’re lonely even without this happening.”
Inspired by the sign from Mamasita’s family and others that have been put up outside RoseWood, the staff ordered large poster boards for other families to make signs as well.
“We’re going to be putting them out front and resident family members can come and pick them up and take them home and decorate them, and then bring them back,” said Aly Howse, director of sales and marketing at RoseWood Village at Hollymead. “We’re hoping to have a sea of signs out back and all around the community. So that’s kind of morphed into something really big and amazing.”
Marta Keane, CEO of the Jefferson Area Board for Aging, said about 20% of the region’s population is over the age of 60 and more than 25% of those residents live alone.
“Although we’ve now learned every group is vulnerable, they’re the group that’s more vulnerable in terms of a more severe case [of COVID-19],” she said.
On March 16, JABA closed its office to in-person visitors and temporarily suspended operations at its Community Senior Centers. On March 19, it closed its Charlottesville adult care center.
“One of the risky factors for seniors is isolation,” Keane said. “It can cause physical as well as emotional issues with depression. So we were trying to balance keeping the centers open as long as it was safe, because we don’t want to be a nexus of transmission, but recognizing that isolating them too soon was not safe either.”
JABA is still offering its services, such as its Medicare and Affordable Care Act insurance counseling, over the phone to community members and has assisted community center members with getting shelf-stable meals.
“We’re doing keeping-in-touch calls with them, and we’ve put together packets of things that they can do at home that we’ve mailed out,” Keane said.
Thursday afternoon, Carleigh Showalter, manager of JABA’s Mary Williams Community Senior Center, led a game of bingo over a conference call line for center members.
“We’re trying to find creative ways to keep connecting with folks and have them feel connected, because I think connectedness is going to be the piece that even introverts are going to miss,” Showalter said.
The Center, formerly known as the Senior Center, has closed to visitors and postponed the opening of its new facility in the Belvedere subdivision.
“Much of what The Center does is in close quarters — group exercise games, discussion groups,” said Executive Director Peter Thompson. “We expect as soon as we get enough information from the public health experts that it is safe to reopen, we will do so, knowing that some of our folks will flock and because we already had people who were champing at the bit and having cabin fever.”
Thompson said they don’t expect everything to go instantly back to normal again.
“We envision that we may not open as robustly as we had planned to open in April, but we may phase it in,” he said. “… There’s a lot of ways the new center provides us some flexibility with indoor and outdoor space to ease into things once the public health officials say it’s safe to do so.”
For now, The Center is providing programs online, like Facebook Live concerts and group exercise classes over Zoom video conferencing. Staffers also are compiling activities such as virtual tours on The Center’s website, thecentercville.org.
Thompson said that on Monday staffers are going to start calling members, beginning with those who did not provide The Center with an email address.
“We’re going to be doing that partially just for information, but also just to show people that we’re still there,” he said. “A lot of seniors are living alone, they’re not getting out, and we want to touch them to make sure that we haven’t forgotten about them.”