BRIDGEVIEW, IL — Every day, the residents of Moraine Court Supportive Living ask their caregivers when normal will return. The residents have spent the past four months alone in their apartments, chased into seclusion by the coronavirus pandemic. While other Illinoisans rush to reclaim daily routines, visiting restaurants and bars, these elderly residents still have to wait out the scourge.
“I miss walking around outside,” 78-year-old Diane Cascone says. “I just want to visit friends that I haven’t seen for a while and get some fresh air.”
At the senior living residence, tucked behind busy Harlem Avenue on a pleasant green campus, most of the 65-and-over residents are on Medicaid. These live wires are used to having their freedom. They take trips to Vegas and Ireland. Some own cars that haven’t been moved since March, occasionally started by a maintenance worker to keep the batteries from running down.
Days before Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered long-term care facilities closed to outside visitors and residents to shelter in place, Moraine Court sealed itself off from the outside world. While the coronavirus has ravaged other congregate settings — nursing home residents account for over half of Illinois’ COVID-19 deaths — Moraine Court has so far emerged unscathed. Only one employee who was asymptomatic tested positive for COVID-19 months ago when she was off work. She was able to self-quarantine and stop any further transmission. No residents and no other staff have tested positive for the virus, and no one has died.
“We sympathize with the places that got hit,” said Scott Szeszycki, director of business affairs. “We’re proud of how we’ve done so far, but we know we’re one minor error from being the next news story with 40 dead. We’re not out of the woods yet.”
Before the great 2020 lockdown, there were monthly birthday parties, Halloween, Christmas and Easter celebrations, visits from home-schoolers, entertainers, popcorn, crafts of all kinds, religious services, and social gatherings at the nearby Bridgeview Community Center. Residents still talk about their last expedition to Walmart and Family Dollar in February, when few coronavirus cases were reported in the United States.
When the building closed up and residents were told they had to stay in their units, they were in a state of shock. Staff's biggest concern is keeping the residents from falling into depression. Tinamaria Hare started her new job as the director of life enrichment — activities — on March 2, with visions of group activities, current-events discussions and religious services for the residents, only to have it all come to an abrupt halt six days later.
“I definitely had to get creative,” said Hare, a licensed clinical social worker. “I’m running iPads and a cell phone around the building all day so our residents can have FaceTime visits with their families. Their kids are also elderly and not always tech-savvy.”
Each resident receives three visits a day in their units when CNAs come to take their vitals. Hare delivers the mail.
“As long as they’re having interaction, we can detect depression,” Hare said. “The CNAs will let us know if someone seems a little down. I tell the residents we’re all in this together, and we’ll make the best of it. I try to give them hope. ”
Four Months In Solitary
Last month, Tina Tuner tribute artist Dorothy Roberson performed her act from the bed of a pickup truck that drove around the building where residents watched from their windows.
“[Roberson] was incredible,” 70-year-old Nancy Brown said. “She’s over 60 and was shaking around in those dresses. She had the moves. She really sang. Everybody opened their windows, and she waved at us.”
Elizabeth Wolyniec, who will turn 74 in November, reads from the list of pandemic activities invented by Hare, whom residents describe as “incredible.” Residents don masks and sit in their open doorways to play games and chat, their only social interaction.
“Hallway bingo, hallway Wheel of Fortune, hallway blackjack, hallway solitaire,” Wolyniec says, reading from the list.
Describing herself as a “positive person,” Wolyniec refuses to give in to depression. A professional horsewoman until she was sidelined by a neck injury, Wolyniec keeps her stuffed-animal-filled room immaculate. When she’s not locked up, she and a friend like to go to Brookfield Zoo, where she's adopted a monkey.
“I work on my computer, knit, read, meditate, pray,” she says. “I’m just praying this lockdown ends soon. The first thing I’m going to do is make a mimosa for myself and get drunk, and go out for a good steak dinner."
Cascone admits that some older residents are lonesome and struggling. She says the isolation is worse on them.
“We try to perk them up and tell them it won’t be too much longer,” Cascone says. “A man next door is good with the older people, makes sure they’re eating. There’s one lady who wants to go her family’s house every night.”
When she was young, Cascone worked for a downtown brokerage firm and lived with a bunch of girls in an apartment off Rush Street. She met her late husband, Mario, at the Happy Medium. She passes the time watching television — Humphrey Bogart movies, “Sanford and Son” and minister Joyce Meyer (“she’s funny as hell”).
“I’ve got a TV, and I’m learning how to work a tablet, which is helping me a lot to keep in contact with friends,” Diane says. “We can’t let up on this.”
Brown, a retired nursing home administrator, considers herself one of the lucky ones because she lives on the first floor and has a patio. She sits outside watching baby birds learning to fly. Every once in a while during the quarantine, she treated herself to Chinese food because “you have to live a little and give yourself a break. It can’t all be gloom and doom.”
There is a glimmer of light at the end of the long COVID-19 lockdown tunnel. Pritzker recently granted permission to long-term care facilities to start allowing residents to have outdoor visits by appointment. Asked if she ever considered chucking the precautions and taking her chances resuming her life, Brown says she has no regrets.
“I want to live.”
This story has been updated with new information.