By Dolaine Koch
My father was in an assisted living building with seventy other seniors for several years. We all assumed that because he had communal meals and some activities that were shared, he was fine. He didn’t complain too much about a lack of human contact. He was walking to the mall whenever he wanted, and he was active. He even had two personal trainers by this time. We were aiming for a hip replacement when the pandemic hit, and his surgery was cancelled until further notice.
My father didn’t have a great relationship with anyone in the building. He presented as outgoing but really wasn’t. He had a chat with the building manager most days, but he really didn’t strike up a relationship with any other tenants except for the first year or so. There was a lady who moved into the apartment adjacent, and they got along famously. However, she developed a tragically quick cancer and was gone all too soon.
We noticed that the pandemic measures in place forced an invisible wall such that his activity, his chronic pain, and lack of any real contact were having a huge impact on his overall health. When the ‘best summer ever’ opened a few doors, we started the journey all over again for the surgery, but it didn’t last. He passed away after a disastrous fall down the stairs in his building. We just never really realized what he was going through, because we weren’t locked up in isolation in our own homes. None of the family was pushed to the limit.
When I tested positive for COVID-19 while travelling away from home, I was forced to isolate in a strange country with another language. Having travelled with a friend, we scrambled to find me another accommodation for five days in isolation.
My hotel room had a patio overlooking the pool, and a second room with another patio allowed for a kitchen so I could cook my meals. My friend went shopping for basics while I stayed active walking the space to get my 10,000 steps a day. I went from walking 15,000+ steps a day wherever I wanted, swimming fifty pool lengths and walking the track every morning, to being totally stuck in the rooms. I had my laptop with Wi-Fi, a book to read and a TV. Spanish is not my strong suit. It got me thinking…
Lessons I learned by being forced to isolate:
- you’re comfortable, doesn’t mean you’re happy.
- you have food but no one to share it with, no chats with people you appreciate, doesn’t make it enjoyable.
- you have digital contact by email, text, and social media, doesn’t make you feel there is real communication.
- you can look over the balcony and wave at people, doesn’t make you feel valued.
I didn’t appreciate how my father was feeling because I had made assumptions about his interactions with people and how the accommodations were, not what he really wanted or needed. We all thought he was an outgoing guy. Not so. It’s hard to say, but I believe he wasn’t finding like-minded people to have those conversations he wanted to have.
Many fellow tenants were more physically or mentally challenged. He didn’t have patience for that. I truly believe we all need to have mental stimulation, real contact in person with people, and opportunities to be with others most every day. Just because you’re assigned a seat at the table doesn’t mean you’re with people you appreciate. And to be stuck with this until someone dies, that’s what he faced. Every day.
What are your goals as you age? I have lots, and all of them include surrounding myself with people I know and love to be with. Don’t assume things are fine. Ask those questions that lead your significant others to share what’s really happening. And make the effort to be in contact no matter whether it’s by a call or in-person meets. It will make a huge difference for yourself and for others.