For 56 days, the coronavirus pandemic kept Howard Smith apart from Lois Kittson, his wife of half a century. Their separation ended this week with a short but stirring reunion – at a safe distance – outside her nursing home in upstate New York.
Howard, who for years had visited his wife almost every day at the home, was able to meet Lois for 35 minutes Tuesday at the entryway of the New Paltz Center facility where she has lived since 2015 as a late-stage Alzheimer’s patient. The visit came with special precautions in the coronavirus era: No touching was allowed. Howard had to wear a mask and stay more than six feet from Lois.
Howard’s eyes lit up when Lois, wrapped in a blanket and wearing a sun hat, was rolled out of the nursing home in her wheelchair, with assistance from the facility’s activities director. He spent the visit calmly bringing her up to date on news of the world, their family home in New York’s Hudson River Valley, and their 27-year-old daughter, Laurel, in Manhattan, who hopes to join him for another visit soon.
Lois, whose illness has taken away her ability to speak, smiled several times and made faint noises. It is her way of communicating joy, Howard said.
Last month, Reuters published a story about the couple’s life together, culminating in their recent separation during the pandemic. As COVID-19 ravages vulnerable populations in nursing homes across America and the world, it was unclear whether Howard and Lois would ever see each other again.
Their visit may offer a glimmer of hope for thousands of families separated from loved ones who live in U.S. nursing homes. Even as expectations grow that the coronavirus pandemic will drag on for many months, the reunion underscores how U.S. nursing homes and other long-term elder-care facilities are trying to arrange for limited visits without putting residents or staff at risk.
Across the country, the facilities that house more than 1.5 million vulnerable seniors have been in lockdown since March. Banning visitation is meant to keep the virus at bay, but for loved ones, it’s been a painful separation. During normal times, family visits are a vital part of weekly routines for many residents, including those with dementia like Lois.
For weeks in many nursing homes, phone calls and video have been the only means of checking in on loved ones. But as the pandemic continues, many of the facilities are coming up with creative solutions to allow non-traditional visits.
Some offer staff-supervised patio or parking lot visits, as long as family members and residents keep their distance. Others encourage so-called window visits, in which loved ones can interact with residents separated by glass, singing “Happy Birthday,” eating a common meal on either side, or bringing signs to cheer up residents.
In addition, nursing homes in New York and elsewhere are introducing new measures to ensure residents and staff can all be tested for the coronavirus. New York also now requires nursing home operators to inform families when residents at a facility have tested positive. To date, the New Paltz Center facility has reported no cases of COVID-19.
After Tuesday’s meeting, Howard said he felt a deep sense of relief that his wife remains stable and well taken care of by staff at the home. He said the nursing home should be “commended for making these efforts” and hopes it’s just the first of many such visits.
“One robin doesn’t make a spring, but she was pretty engaged,” he said. “This was an experience for her, and it was reassuring to me.”
Of the distancing requirement, Howard said it was perfectly understandable, and a small price to pay for the chance to see his wife again.
“It wasn’t as good as being next to her, but I was OK with it.”