This is the first time Marie McKeel Swann, her three brothers and their families haven’t gathered at her parents’ Princeton home for Thanksgiving.
Even after their mom died three years ago, the adult children divvied up the cooking duties and converged at the family home for a day of food and celebration.
But this year, the siblings and their respective families will visit their 95-year-old father, William McKeel, at the assisted living facility where he’s lived since January.
Since the facility went into lockdown in March at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, William McKeel’s children and grandchildren have stood outside the facility and talked to him on the phone while he watched them from a window. They’ve had outdoor visits. They call him multiple times a day.
There will be no reprieve from this routine on Thanksgiving. The family has decided he needs to stay at the facility.
“It makes me feel like I am not a good daughter because I can’t figure out a way to get him out of there,” said Swann, a chemistry teacher at Arendell Parrott Academy in Kinston.
Whenever a resident leaves the grounds of the facility, that person has to spend 14 days in quarantine. Swann’s father already has endured multiple quarantines.
When he was briefly hospitalized last summer, Swann brought him to her house for 2½ weeks.
“I rationalized it because we were going to have 2½ weeks of fun to make up for the 14 days he was going to be quarantined when he went back,” she said.
The most recent quarantine was for more than two weeks because multiple cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed at the facility.
When the facility goes into quarantine the residents have to stay in their rooms, alone, with the doors closed. They eat all their meals in the room.
“All he wants to do is sit outside. He’s real happy if he gets to go outside and if he’s quarantined he can’t go outside,” Swann said. “I can’t rationalize taking him out to eat and bringing him back and then he’s quarantined for 14 days.”
Swann describes her father as “unbelievably agile” for his age but he has no short-term memory. He developed health problems because he could not remember to take his prescription medicine, which is why Swann and her siblings decided to move him to an assisted living facility.
“He had three months where he thought that place was wonderful,” Swann said. He went from living alone after his wife’s death to going on outings, participating in activities and becoming part of a group that routinely ate together.
That stopped in March when Gov. Roy Cooper ordered the first lockdown.
Now her dad also asks when he can go home.
Since March, North Carolina has had 23,796 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in nursing homes and residential care facilities, resulting in 2,484 deaths.
When the lockdown began, congregate living facilities, including assistant living and nursing homes, could no longer allow family and outside visitors into their buildings. Outdoor visits weren’t allowed until September, and only then if there was social distancing or a barrier placed between residents and their families.
Nursing homes are navigating the restrictions as best they can, trying to keep residents safe and families in touch.
In the past, families have been able to pick up residents from MacGregor Downs Health and Rehabilitation Center and take them to dinner for the holidays, said Terry Edwards, activity manager. This year, family visits will be through Zoom, FaceTime and Windows of Love, which allows residents and relatives to see each other through a window and talk to each other on the phone.
Communal dining resumed on Nov. 23, giving residents the opportunity to eat a traditional meal together for Thanksgiving, with occupancy limits and social distancing, Edwards said.
She said the residents have been able to handle the pandemic by keeping themselves engaged and busy by crocheting and knitting hats along with other activities.
“Our residents are very resilient and they have handled the COVID in a really, really, unique, special way,” Edwards said.
Linda Evans, 76, president of the MacGregor Downs Residents Council has lived at the facility for five years. She usually spends Thanksgiving with her daughters, who both live in the area. Although she won’t continue that tradition this year, Evans is still optimistic about how she will spend the holiday.
“I will be spending Thanksgiving here in my room but I’ll have a prayer with the good Lord when I get up that morning and I’ll go all day with my faith with him and talk to residents as I can see them. We’ll eat here — not like we’ve been doing — but we’ll have good food,” Evans said.
Evans talks to her daughters every day and has been able to see them through the Windows of Love program.
“It’s not like seeing them in person; you can see them but you can’t touch them,” Evans said. “You can see their face and they can see your face, you can talk to them but it’s not like being able to hug them or greet them when they come.”
Evans said she plans to call her loved ones and wish them a happy Thanksgiving.
“The main difference is I won’t be able to see all the extended family, the cousins and all the children, grandchildren, so there’s a difference,” Evans said.
Such restrictions are safety-based, but that doesn’t always make them easier for residents and families to bear.
Longing for connection
Swann said she understands the need for restrictions and would follow whatever rules a facility had to impose so she could visit her father in his room.
No one from the family has been in his room since March 13, she said, and she wants to make sure he doesn’t need new socks or other clothing and that his bed linens are being changed. She also wants to make sure he doesn’t have spoiled food or trash stashed away.
She’s tried to talk to staff about her father’s needs with limited success.
“It’s got to be hard on (the staff) them so I try not to be,” Swann said. “I try to remember when they are not answering the phone they are doing a lot of things they are not used to doing.”
But her patience was tested when her father turned 95 in April.
The facility wasn’t allowing outdoor visits at the time, so the family gathered below his second-story room.
However, the staff wouldn’t let him open his window so he could hear them sing “Happy Birthday.”
“I couldn’t believe it. I asked, ‘How far back would I have to stand so you can feel safe from me?’ but (the staff member) said ‘I’m sorry, we can’t open the windows, it’s the rule,’” she said.
There are times Swann thinks about quitting her job so she can bring her father home and care for him herself. But she loves her job, loves the school and can’t imagine finding another job that she would like as much.
She and her brothers have talked about bringing her dad back to his house and securing home care, but know that would present another set of issues to navigate.
The one thing the family has agreed on is one way or another, they are bringing their father home for Christmas.
“We’re trying to figure that out. We are going to get him out of Christmas. He’s going to be quarantined, no doubt, but we are definitely going to get him out at Christmas,” Swann said. “If we could keep him out for two weeks, a day out for each day he’s stuck in.”