By Ruth Dennis
Yesterday one of our elders made a statement that stuck with me “My physical therapist says baby steps are important.” Our elder was discussing her frustration with recovery from knee surgery. Mostly she was annoyed and unsure. She forgets what she is unable to do, she also gets scared to move at all. This can happen at the same time. Somewhere in the confusion of the moment she realized that it was important to keep making baby steps and to keep trying. Our elders may lose memory, skills, independence but they keep wisdom, intuition, and awareness. Baby steps are important. Right now, baby steps are all any of us have. One of my friends is a grandmother several times over. She keeps pictures of her grandchildren on her phone. She has all their 1st steps recorded on her phone. That first set of often shaky steps means the world to her. In her eyes, these first awkward, shaky steps are more beautiful than any dance that any ballerina could ever create. Right now, in some way or another all of us are taking baby steps. COVID has been a constant challenge, it has brought limits that most people have never had to consider into life. Masks, gloves, distance, fear, loss, and isolation have been everyday life for the past year. Progress right now is slow. The social skills and connections that we have always relied on all our lives were put on hold for a very long time. We face the need to re-learn how to be together. We will be awkward and unsure for a long time, but eventually with baby steps we will learn to connect again.
At my door, the leaves are falling, the cold, wild winds will come. I still miss someone… I find a darkened corner because I still miss someone…
— Johnny Cash.
At 2:48 this morning, I came to a decision. Before getting up and adding Morgan’s favorite Star Wars comforter to the bed because I was cold then having a glass of milk, I decided that this year I will put up a Christmas tree. I have not done this yet, but I did make a choice. It’s tiny and inconsequential, but it is mine for now. For a reason I cannot explain, the idea of decorating a tree gives me peace. Last year there was no tree. Then, I was staying with a dear friend, in shock, exhausted and fearing for the future. This year, the holidays bring something else:. Another kind of grief that is both personal and collective and a sense of loss that touches every one of us in unspeakable ways. We are working our way through wild and scary darkness.
One of my friends, Hope, refers to grief as a wilderness. This makes sense to me. Wilderness lands are a combination of isolation, beauty, danger, potential, deep connection, risk, and renewal. Wilderness can be a place of solace. Wilderness is also scary and dangerous. COVID-19 has brought all of us to this wilderness. There is not one soul whose life has not been touched or altered. We have all lost. We all miss someone. We all miss each other. All of us know someone who is vulnerable. Many of us are vulnerable. All of us are tired. All of us are scared. This is an unknown place, a place of wild and weird things, a place of loss, a place of change, a place of pain. Grief can also be a place of rebirth, a place of deepening. Grief can be a place for love to grow and live.
The hard part, the part where there are just are no clear answers, is: How do we navigate this wilderness, which has become a part of all of us. How do we support one another? What do we share? How do we uplift each other? We re amidst a messiness that, despite all efforts to control, is often beyond our control.
Where does that leave us?
My little piece of the grief wilderness has given me at least two things. The first is the people around me — my friends, and my Vista family are good and kind people. It does not matter that they can all be stubborn or weird at times. They are all special human beings who are doing the best they can every day. It is an honor and a gift to have them in my life.
The second is that I still find magic in the world: flowers, gardens, cats, an elder drawing on her own for the first time, knowing people who are in love, the sunsets from my back yard, and learning to make a really good caldo de res. This magic is a gift. I spent Thursday evening on Zoom with a friend talking about family, faith, and lighting the first candle of Hanukkah. We sang in Hebrew and sang the old gospel songs I grew up with. We talked about light in the darkness. That day was filled with calls and texts from friends who all shared life as Morgan’s sister with me. This day was filled with light in the darkness and with family.
We are all spending the holidays in a wilderness. There is danger here. There is pain here. There is fear here. There are also gifts. I, for one, am thankful for the gifts.
But… at my door, the leaves are falling, the cold, wild winds will come, I still miss someone… I find a darkened corner because I still miss someone.
Sanctuary: A place of refuge or safety. -Merriam Webster
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm.” -Bob Dylan
Like much else in our economy right now, there is a push to re-open assisted living homes and nursing homes. Last week, I joined a group of nationally recognized professionals discussing just this topic. Everyone on the 6-a.m. call wanted to advocate for the many struggling families and their elders.
I came into this discussion because I got frustrated and angry. After spending several days obsessing over video lectures and Facebook posts that blamed facilities for mistreating elders and their families and venting to my Vista family and friends, I sent an email to the Positive Approach to Care (PAC) about their Community Care Circle Round Table Discussion. Positive Approach to Care, founded by Teepa Snow, has developed deeply meaningful approaches to Dementia Care for decades. This group has focused on showing elders facing dementia respect and compassion and is an amazing resource. PAC has also been working with families to face the many painful issues that have arisen due to COVID and the isolation procedures that this virus has brought. My thought was that my email would either just get deleted or ignored. The opposite happened. Vista was invited to join this discussion about “Creating a Map for the Future During COVID” that respects elders and families. What Vista offers is a way to both protect elders and nurture families while allowing elders to have a vital, connected and joyful life.
Last count, 50,779 elders have died in assisted living and nursing homes. In total, that’s 45% of all COVID-related deaths in the US, according to the Center for Disease Control. These numbers are brutal reminders that our elders constitute some of our most vulnerable populations. But, how do we get past this? How do we create safe institutions and allow elders to have a full life? How can we give their families the connection and love they need while protecting just those elders? How, as caregivers, do we make this all work? And are there ways of providing sanctuary and support to our community of caregivers? I often wonder whether eldercare can positively grow as a result of the trauma of illness our society is facing.