CORONAVIRUS

Mother's Day, Birthdays, Anniversaries: Celebrating during a pandemic

Sondy Daggett (left) visits her wife, Liz Hoskins, on their tenth wedding anniversary with Liz's daughter Sara Hoskins (
Sondy Daggett (left) visits her wife, Liz Hoskins, on their tenth wedding anniversary with Liz’s daughter Sara Hoskins (right) and granddaughter, Allie Hoskins (center) at Bickford of Marion Senior Living in Marion, Iowa on Friday, May 1, 2020. Sondy and Liz have been partnered for 24 years and married for ten. Liz, who has dementia, lives in an assisted living facility and has not been able to see her family since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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A 10th wedding anniversary traditionally is celebrated with a gift of aluminum or tin.

For Sondy Daggett, her 10th year of marriage to Liz Hoskins was marked with a gift of Champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries shared through a window.

Employees at Bickford of Marion, the assisted living and memory care center where Hoskins is a resident, surprised the couple with the anniversary gift on May 1. Despite the current coronavirus-related mitigation practices, the staff had created a special moment for the couple, who have been partners for 24 years.

Daggett burst into tears as employees played their wedding song — Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time.”

“It just touched my soul,” Daggett said.

Across the state, moments like this are relegated through windows or over a phone call. As the novel coronavirus pandemic sweeps through the country, long-term care facilities have locked down in an effort to keep residents healthy, which means their families are no longer able to hug their loved ones, or sit with them in their rooms.

For many families, the feelings at such times this time are conflicted. Typical Mother’s Day celebrations have been placed on hold, and recent milestones have been missed by those living in long-term care facilities. Simple visits through windows feel distant.

“Those are the moments you remember and you miss,” said Daggett, recalling memories of visits to Bickford of Marion from Hoskins’s grandchildren and family gatherings during the holidays.

Hoskins, who has dementia, has been a resident at Bickford since August 2019.

“The pandemic has taken this away,” Daggett said.

But beyond this new dynamic with which family members are left to grapple, they also have the constant worry that their loved one could fall ill.

So far, Bickford of Marion has not seen any cases.

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“Every time you read about another outbreak — whether it’s close to home or anywhere in the country — it brings home how fortunate we are so far,” said Matt Hoskins, Liz Hoskin’s son. “I can’t imagine the anxiety the residents and staff are having once it breaks through the wall.”

As of Friday, 29 long-term care facilities across the state, which includes skilled nursing facilities and senior living centers, among others — have reported outbreaks of COVID-19 among hundreds of their staff and residents.

As a result, for some Iowans, that fear has become a reality.

‘I have to trust’

Ruth Brackett’s son Jamie Degner, a 38-year-old resident at Harmony House Health Care Center in Waterloo, tested positive for COVID-19 this past week.

Degner, who has severe autism and intellectual disabilities, has been a resident there since he was 15 years old.

More than 60 residents and staff have tested positive for COVID-19 at Harmony House, an intermediate care facility. It’s one of two long-term care facilities in Black Hawk County reporting an outbreak, defined as three or more positive tests among residents.

Degner received his test results on Tuesday. He’s had lower-than-normal oxygen levels, but otherwise has recorded his usual vital signs and has not experienced symptoms.

Brackett said it is “unbelievably difficult to not be able to go be with him through this.”

As with many facilities across the state, Harmony House closed its doors to visitors in early March, when the first cases of COVID-19 began being reported across Iowa and the nation. Brackett said her son’s cognitive abilities make it impossible for him to understand that she is unable to visit because she might make him sick, so the staff instead tell Degner his mom is “at work.”

While she’s optimistic he’ll improve, Brackett worries whether Degner’s virus would take a turn for the worse.

“It’s tough because I have to trust” the staff, Brackett said. “There’s nothing I can do, so I can’t spend a lot of time dwelling on what I might do differently.”

The families that spoke to The Gazette believe the leadership at long-term care facilities are doing what they can to keep its residents safe and healthy.

At Bickford of Marion, officials have taken the unique step of promising public transparency of possible COVID-19 cases in its facility. On the website of every Bickford location is a feature recording the number of residents who have tested positive for COVID-19.

“Whether it’s COVID-19 or not, we want to be transparent with families about their loved ones’ care,” Bickford of Marion Executive Director Jacobi Feckers said. “I don’t know why other nursing homes haven’t taken that step because I haven’t spoken to other facilities, but I’m thankful that’s the route we’ve taken.”

It’s not just families who are placing their trust in management. Ron Moore is an independent living resident at Cottage Grove Place, one of the largest senior living centers in Cedar Rapids that has reported an outbreak of COVID-19 this past week.

According to the latest data from public health officials, five residents and staff there have tested positive.

The outbreak originated in the skilled nursing unit, and officials said they are working to ensure the virus doesn’t spread to the assisted-living and independent-living portions of the facility. They restricted movement between the facilities and conduct frequent temperature checks of staff.

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So far, the general feeling among residents at Cottage Grove Place’s independent-living housing is that management has “done a good job” of controlling exposure.

“The feelings of the residents here are positive,” Moore said. “They appreciate what management has done to protect us.”

‘Any opportunity to celebrate’

Still, life looks much differently at Cottage Grove Place. Moore said his schedule typically is packed with weekly book clubs and coffees with friends. Now he and his wife take walks, or try to connect with friends over email.

“I’ve found (residents) are not depressed at this time,” he said. “But in the future, if this goes on for many months? My prediction is yes, depression will be a serious thing.”

Local senior living centers have come up with unique ways to allow visitors to see their loved ones. Gina Hausknecht, a 55-year-old Iowa City resident, was able to see her mother in person for the first time in weeks after her assisted-living home, Oaknoll Retirement Community in Iowa City, created a “drive up” visit option this past weekend.

While Hausknecht sat in the car, she was able to speak with her mother, 93-year-old Ellen Hausknecht, for an hour outside the facility. Before this, it had been emotionally difficult for Hausknecht not to see her mom weekly as she usually does

“It sunk in that I don’t know when I’m going to see my mom again, and that felt really terrible,” Hausknecht previously told The Gazette.

Hausknecht said she hopes to take this year’s Mother’s Day as an opportunity to do something special, particularly given the difficult past few weeks.

“Our family isn’t super-big on these kinds of holidays but we do like to acknowledge them, and this year it feels important to take hold of any opportunity to celebrate,” she said.

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Other facilities, including Bickford of Marion, also have eased restrictions on sending food and gifts to residents in time for Mother’s Day. Matt Hoskins, Liz’s Hoskins’ son, said the family’s usual Mother’s Day plans are impossible this year, so they hope to send Liz’s Hoskins artwork from her grandchildren along with other gifts.

Brackett, who will be apart from her son Degner this year, said she hadn’t planned anything for the holiday. She looks forward to her first in-person visit with him after the pandemic, when she will bring his favorite meal from McDonald’s and a new deck of Phase 10 cards.

Despite the feelings of being separated, their wedding anniversary on May 1 likely is something Daggett will cherish, she said. With Daggett acting as Hoskins caregiver since her dementia diagnosis in 2016, their wedding anniversary has been something the couple hasn’t celebrated in a significant way in some time, she said.

But that worry still creeps in the back of her mind. Daggett said she’s trying to remain “as confident as anyone can at this point.”

“I learned a long time ago you can’t worry about what you can’t control,” Daggett said. “But does that mean I still wake up at 2 in the morning worried about it? Of course I do.”

Comments: (319) 398-8469; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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