IMy perspective on Covid is drawn from an early childhood experience with Polio. I believe it holds the key to unwinding the political binding that is strangling our vaccination effort.
It was summer, school was out and my sister and I could hardly wait to play with our friends. I already knew there was a sickness that children got and it made them so they couldn’t run and play. That seemed like the end of the world to me! Every day the radio reported the latest number of children with Polio and the number of deaths. After a week or so, my mother announced that we were “going to stay home and make things”. That seemed odd. We made all kinds of things; I learned to sew that summer.
When I asked if Olivia could join us, Mom refused.
Mom told us that Olivia was away on vacation. Later, I saw her mother driving their car. Olivia must be home again. Still Mom refused to allow her to come. She also refused any other children to come. Mom seemed worried all the time; I didn’t understand why. I thought I had done something SO horrible that she wouldn’t talk about it! Finally, I asked to go see Olivia at her house; Mom got really, really upset. I couldn’t make any sense of her reaction; what had I done? Did I do something to Olivia?
My curiosity got the better of me. While my mother was putting my sister down for her nap, I left the house anyway! When I knocked on Olivia’s door, her mother answered. She seemed startled to see me. I asked to see Olivia but her mother replied; “is it OK with your mother?” “Yes”, I lied.
She left me standing on the front stoop while she went into the dining room. Olivia didn’t come to the door. Instead, I heard a sound: whoosh, whiish, whoosh, whiish. It sounded like a giant breathing. Eventually, Olivia’s mother came to the door and invited me into their dining room. All the dining furniture was gone. In its place was a giant machine that wrapped itself around Olivia like a tin can: only her head showed. Olivia turned her head (sort of) and greeted me. I couldn’t speak. She tried to explain that she had gotten Polio. I still couldn’t make a sound.
I don’t remember exactly what I did next. Eventually, I found myself sitting on the curb about midway between her house and ours. I have no idea how long I sat there. Eventually Mom must have come looking for me. She bent down and looked intently into my eyes. I still couldn’t talk. Her facial expression was the same as the time my sister had been bitten by a dog. Mom gathered me up and took me home. She looked me over physically. Seeing no injuries, she gave me a pill and put me to bed.
That whole experience was buried deep in my mind; until Covid. During the first lockdown, I was awakened by the sound: Whoosh, whiish, whoosh, whiish. I got up and checked the furnace, no noise like that. It happened for several nights; I checked the windows and the plastic sheeting over the glass which sealed out air leaks. I found no “cause”.
Finally, Olivia greeted me one night and I realized where I had heard that noise! My encounter with Polio had come back to me!
Shortly after that summer, the radio announced the “Salt” vaccine. Mom corrected me, it was the Salk vaccine. The school gymnasium filled with children and their mothers. We were lined up, given the shot, and a card. I didn’t like shots. Mom looked elated! She took us out for a chocolate soda to celebrate. Celebrating seemed an odd way to respond to a shot. Olivia’s family moved away. The next year we moved. Only later did I learn that the shot I received was to prevent me from getting that sickness so children couldn’t run and play.
Based on this experience, I suggest the following methods to refocus on Covid as a disease PERIOD.
Polio and the concept of prevention through vaccine remained PRESENT to me because of that (buried) experience. Covid isn’t real for some people because it’s not present. Bubonic Plague left bodies in the streets. The 1918 Flu pandemic left people dying at everywhere. Nurses and doctors saw Covid effects. Those who tried to care for loved ones at home saw Covid up front. Covid isn’t visible to the general public when most patients are whisked away by ambulance, and sequestered in ICUs. WE NEED TO MAKE IT VISIBLE.
Children who suffered from Polio came home in wheel chairs, crutches and iron lungs. They represented the effects of a dread disease. Long haul Covid sufferers don’t have appliances. They have memory loss and trouble breathing. That’s harder to see. We NEED TO MAKE VISIBLE THE EFFECTS OF COVID IN THOSE WHO HAVE RECOVERED.
When I was born, there was only the Small pox vaccine. I remember grownups with a scarred circle on their upper (usually left) arm; their vaccine site. Bringing up a child was no walk in the park; whooping cough, measles, mumps, chickenpox, diphtheria and polio were only some of the hazards of childhood. Generations of parents spent sleepless nights in prayer beside children’s beds. They rejoiced at each vaccine because they had witnessed the alternative. Each vaccine removed the presence of an illness but it also broke the connection with lived experience. WE NEED TO REBUILD THAT BRIDGE. We need to reconnect to dots for those whose lived experience can’t teach them about such consequences. Covid -first wave was real. Covid Variant is also real
WE NEED TO MAKE IT IMPORTANT ENOUGH. Who is important enough to make a difference in our response? When HIV-AIDs developed it only affected gay men. It was first called gay cancer. Some believed it was the judgment of G-d and should be left alone. Then HIV jumped to heterosexual people; it became important. We now have treatments. At first, Covid only took the lives of elderly people in nursing homes. The deaths of younger people in the first variant wave made some realize that a-n-y-o-n-e could die from Covid. Do the right people have to suffer before we take this seriously? Now is it important enough?
This will not be our last plague or pandemic. What changes we make in society’s communication methods now, will decide if we surmount the next two SARS Covid-19 variants. Technology may give us wonderful vaccines, but these will be useless if we leave them on the table due to misinformation.
Thank you Olivia, your life and death were not in vain. You showed me consequences and I am grateful for your gift.
A daughter commented that she had not been able to visit her parent because the facility was “locked down” to prevent the viral spread from Covid. She could only drop his snacks off at the door. She worried. No matter how many times she explained, she still couldn’t get him to understand.
Many elders and their adult children face this dilemma. All facilities are closed to visitation: even when the elder is dying! The more frail the elder, the less likely they can manage total separation. Seniors need tangible connections; touch, sight and hearing.
How do we keep in touch in an era of no-touch? Families often bring presents to these visits, yet; it’s the present of their presence that elders crave. So, how do we convey presence when we can’t be present?
KEEP IT TANGIBLE: E-cards are nice but a classic greeting card is tangible.Your loved one can hold it or look at it repeatedly. Tuck a greeting card into a bag of groceries or a bunch of flowers. The facility staff can point to it to remind them that you are keeping in touch.
MAIL CARDS: It helps support our postal service and your loved one. Getting mail is a big event in care facilities. It’s not how fancy the card, it’s how often you provide a reminder that you care.
TRY PRINTED PHOTOS: These are more tangible. Perhaps you got your loved one a cell phone and sent them pictures. That wasn’t their early experience. For decades, today’s elders only had the paper option. When you send a shiny paper photo it resonates. Photos used to require going to a studio, posing, and were made for special occasions. Photos were important. So printed photos carry an important message from you; “You are important to me”.
Children’s crayon drawings carry the unique, tangible message. They are especially important if the drawings are labeled with the child’s name, date, and something about the picture. That way, the staff can point out the picture later, when the elder says they think they’re forgotten.
WHAT’S THEIR FRAME OF MIND: We’ve all had a crash course about pandemics. Elders may not have paid as much attention to the news. Some have turned news off altogether. 98+% of today’s elders weren’t alive during that last pandemic in 1918. It isn’t part of their experience. They can’t relate to the scale of lock down necessary to contain a pan-demic. Some may have known families who were quarantined when they were children; but they are not familiar with a whole society in quarantine.
So what do you tell them about why you can’t be there? Start by asking them what they know about today’s news. If they have been following the news, use their level of information to determine what you share about your being away.
If they don’t seem to know; try a simpler explanation: you “have to be away for awhile”. You’ve taken vacations, trips and returned. This is just another time away. Promise only that you will return. Say that in a card as well as on the phone. Say it often. “ Someday, some way, we’ll be together”. That’s what the song says and that’s my prayer for all of us.
Corona Virus-19 is not your parents' quarantine. Before vaccines, quarantines were a common event. Your senior may have lived through several of them. with the passage of time, the anxiety and social disruption may have been lost. All that remains in their minds is that they survived. I've met some seniors who think this is just another flu. They believe that, because they've lived this long, they're immune. It's been a challenge to convince them that this virus has an impact closer to that of the 1918 Spanish flu. I usually ask them if their parents ever discussed the Spanish Flu. Then I draw the comparison.
I've also had to explain that our immune systems change with age. We all know hair turns white/gray with age but not all changes are equally visible. The senior may not realize that they may succumb to this disease because their immune systems are affected with age.
I share these points to forewarn caregivers that your senior my see this disease very differently than you do. What's in your senior's mind? If the senior doesn't get the message, they will be more likely to get the disease.
Stay well and set a good example; wash your hands with your senior.
"A Senior Moment" is written by Ms. Sara Lieber, owner of Senior Sidekicks. Ms. Lieber has over 30 years of experience in senior care.