For some of Laura Fitzgibbon’s clients, leaving home to visit a doctor represents a high point in their lives over the last few months.
Fitzgibbon, an activities director and art therapist with CDM Caregiving Services, is doing her best to help the older population she serves during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of their ages and sometimes other health complications, many of Fitzgibbon’s clients have to be diligent about protecting themselves from coronavirus.
“It’s so incredibly isolating for them,” Fitzgibbon said.
Many of her clients are spending days and weeks confined to their homes, with maybe a brief respite of outdoor time.
Isolation and loneliness can lead to depression and have a drastic impact on one’s health, said Lisa Capeloto, a development director with CDM, Southwest Washington’s oldest and largest in-home care agency for the elderly and disabled of all ages.
“We know those are two big killers, especially to our elderly,” Capeloto said. “We are doing our best to keep them from going down that rabbit hole of isolation.”
While Fitzgibbon normally sees clients in person, that hasn’t been the case for almost a year now. In the fall, Fitzgibbon returned to leading many of her activities virtually for clients.
Each weekday, Fitzgibbon opens the day with a virtual coffee and conversation that lasts for about 45 minutes. Folks can talk about their plans, the w acky news cycle or whatever is on their minds.
“We see each other every day, so it’s so unusual not to be together,” Fitzgibbon said. “These virtual activities are touchstones. They get to see all their friends. I look forward to it every day. We are a community and we want to keep that alive.”
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Bob Wilson, a 71-year-old Vancouver resident, said the isolation of the last year has bothered him at times. It’s the cabin fever aspect that he doesn’t like, he said. In ordinary times, Wilson would visit CDM’s office frequently to see friends and do activities. Now that’s gone.
Wilson is a regular participant on the daily virtual chats. He says that service has helped to ease some of the loneliness.
“That’s a good thing for me,” Wilson said. “You get to see some of your cronies.”
After the coffee chat ends, Fitzgibbon will do an exercise class for CDM clients. In the afternoon, clients can partake in dice, bingo, trivia and crossword puzzles and other activities, depending on the day of the week.
Fitzgibbon said dice has become particularly popular. Fitzgibbon recalled jokingly telling clients, “You guys are playing dice way too much.”
“They love the competition,” Fitzgibbon added.
Wilson, who lives with his wife, supplements his CDM activities with phone calls from his kids and grandchildren. Wilson has a son who calls him every day.
Wilson also likes to fill time by sitting in his recliner and watching Gonzaga University’s undefeated and top-ranked basketball team.
“Every game, it’s like I have a front row seat,” he said.
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Sandra Russell, 77, said she is one of CDM’s clients who gets excited for her doctor visits now. Russell said she recently went three months without leaving her adult family care home in Vancouver until a doctor visit provided an adventure, so to speak.
Russell speaks with her daughter frequently and has a granddaughter, who is a nurse in Texas, who also keeps in touch. Other family members, who are scattered across the country, do their best to check in, too.
She has been working on painting projects with a friend in her home.
“That keeps you from being totally bored and not looking at the boob tube,” Russell said.
When family visits, Russell will sit outside, socially distanced from them on the patio. Russell said it has been hard to adapt to the restrictions at times. In her old life, she was able to come and go as she pleased, walking or driving at her own leisure.
“There have been times that I just cry,” Russell said.
She communicates with fellow residents and care home staff, which is helpful. Russell also really appreciates how her family has kept in touch with her.
“If I didn’t have them, or anyone I could really talk to, I would be really depressed,” she said.
Russell said she can’t wait for CDM to open back up and appreciates all the friends she has made through CDM.
When she joins the morning chat and doesn’t see a regular it concerns her and she’ll ask about how that person is doing. If they appear again in the next day or two, that brings Russell relief.
“It’s about knowing they are fine,” she said.
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Julie Russell, 57, moved into a Vancouver adult family home in October 2019. Julie Russell had a routine for herself before the pandemic began. She liked to go to church with friends and do picnics, too.
Since March, she has mostly been confined to the adult family home. She’s trying to make the best of the situation, but admits the winter has been hard.
“I kind of go down a dark hole,” Julie Russell said. “I have to find ways to get myself back out.”
CDM’s activities have kept her engaged and stimulated. Julie Russell enjoys the exercise, coffee and conversation and crosswords.
“It gives you something to look forward to and something to think about rather than your situation,” she said.
Julie Russell has leaned on long phone calls with friends and family members. Calls are one of the best ways to improve her mood. Recently she reminisced with a friend, whose dog had died after 16 years of life.
“Talking through the loss of her family friend helps me work through my sadness,” Julie Russell said.
Once they talk through the hardest parts of loss, they can get nostalgic and discuss good memories, like how Russell and her friend visited the coast with the miniature poodle, and dressed it up.
“It just helps you not feel so alone in this pandemic,” Russell said. “It’s just to put my mind and her mind into a more positive frame of mind.”
Russell said she’s looking forward to living a less restricted and more social life in the future. She misses church services and making quilts for people in senior care facilities.
Russell used to work as a caregiver, which has helped her bond with the staff who takes care of her. She likes to talk with them, and her fellow residents, to keep her spirits up.
“I’m doing OK, and OK is good because I don’t know anybody who is doing really well,” Russell said.