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Olga Peters/The Commons

Beverly Cable goes through some boxes as she prepares to move into a new apartment at West River Assisted Living in Townshend.

Special Focus

A new view

State agencies, long-term-care homes, and our communities have worked to keep older Vermonters healthy during the pandemic. But has that come at the expense of their agency and choice?

Olga Peters is the longtime staff reporter for this newspaper.

TOWNSHEND—Stacks of moving boxes line the walls of the first floor apartment at the far end of Valley Cares’ West River Valley Assisted Living Facility.

At my mom’s request, I retrieve her book, The Tao of Watercolor: A Revolutionary Approach to the Practice of Painting, by Jeanne Carbonetti, from her bedroom bookcase and pass it to JoAnne Blanchard, the facility’s executive director and also an artist in her own right.

Blanchard and Beverly Cable, my mother, talk enthusiastically about the Chester-based author and their mutual love of watercolor.

I watch the exchange from the doorway. It’s nice to see Mom excited.

Under the category of compassionate care, I’ve been allowed into the building today to help Mom set up her new apartment.

After checking in at the door and swapping out my cloth face mask for a medical one, a nurse led me down the hall.

I was struck by the building’s relative quiet.

Prior to the pandemic, Valley Cares was a bustling place. Residents visited in the common room. Activities happened upstairs. Someone worked on a puzzle. But on this day, at least, most people were in their rooms.

This silence, caused by the isolation often required to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus, is a concern to Blanchard, who became the director in September.

Older Vermonters may be more vulnerable to the virus, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only health risk they face during this pandemic.

Blanchard and staff members are on the lookout for signs of depression and anxiety.

Residents here have been cut off from their families and activities that bring them joy, she said. Many also feel that they’ve lost their voice and that their concerns go unheard.

* * *

“Can I borrow this book?” Blanchard asks my mom.

Mom agrees, admitting that she has yet to try any of the book’s painting exercises.

Blanchard shrugs. “That’s OK,” she says, thumbing through the pages. “These would make good group activities.”

“When we can have group activities again,” she adds.

Mom maneuvers her wheelchair as she shows Blanchard how much unpacking we’ve accomplished today. She tells Blanchard that I’ve tracked the number of boxes we’ve unpacked on a Post-It note stuck to the door.

(The number, for the record, is nine.)

“You are organized,” Blanchard says to me.

“Well, I am the daughter of a librarian,” I answer.

This is the first time I’ve stood in the same room as my mom for a year. Like many people with loved ones in long-term-care facilities, the COVID-19 pandemic has limited our contact.

We met on the facility’s screened porch for Mom’s birthday last September. We’ve had a couple of patio meetings since to exchange gifts.

I can’t remember the last time I hugged her. Christmas 2019? Valentine’s Day 2020?

* * *

Mom is moving from a second-floor apartment to this new one. She likes how the space looks out onto the lawn and how the sunlight spills through the windows. She seems happy. The move feels like a new journey despite her staying in the same building.

Up until a few weeks ago, she shared an apartment with her third husband, Jack.

Mom, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 40 years ago, will remain at Valley Cares in part because of her health care needs. Jack, however, has moved to Chester for a number of reasons, one being more independence.

During more than one phone call, Jack had mentioned to me his frustration with state requirements that governed his daily life. Pandemic-related restrictions, it seemed to me, stymied the naturally social man.

Blanchard adds that many residents have said they feel they have no voice or choice in how they live through this pandemic.

Despite having received the vaccine, she said, they feel tightly locked down by state guidelines and lumped into a single category: vulnerable elders.

As Blanchard explains, just because an older Vermonter lives in a health care facility, people shouldn’t assume they all need the same level of care or the same pandemic response.

For example, when someone chooses assisted living, it usually means they require some health monitoring and support, yet they can still live independently. They need a lower level of health care and supervision than someone living in a nursing home might need, she says.

Yet the state’s pandemic guidelines have treated most elder care facilities the same, Blanchard says.

She struggles with this.

Blanchard doesn’t want to sound like the state isn’t keeping older Vermonters safe. It is. But she also wants to speak up for the residents at Valley Cares who point out that the guidelines could benefit from more nuance.

It’s not even simply nuance, Blanchard says. It’s also about ensuring that they have choices.

“You are the most vulnerable, but you’re also a person with a choice,” Blanchard said. “Many feel their choice is being superseded by the government.”

* * *

Before she leaves us to the rest of our packing, Blanchard outlines the guidelines I need to follow to return another day to help Mom move the remaining items.

As with everything during this pandemic, the planning is not simple, especially because, while Mom has received her vaccine, I have not. Yet.

After Blanchard leaves, Mom runs through a list of other residents who have struggled with the pandemic’s restrictions.

I was scheduled to help Mom unpack a few weeks ago — as it turned out, the same day a staff member tested positive for the coronavirus. The whole building went into lockdown with residents confined to their rooms.

When Mom called that day, she seemed frustrated. She vented a little about state regulations. Then she stopped before saying what many of us who — so far — have made it through this pandemic with our health, shelter, food, and finances intact: that others have it worse.

Mom says a few colorful words about places in the country that have not cared for their residents well enough.

I tease her. “It’s rough living in a place that gives a shit about whether you live or die,” I say.

She laughs.

* * *

Mom pulls a woven basket decorated with orange cats from one of the boxes.

“I haven’t seen this in three years,” she says.

“Have you missed it?” I ask.

Yes, she says — it contains items that she inherited from her grandmother, for whom she named me.

I ask mom what about the pandemic has been hard for her.

She pauses. She shrugs.

“I don’t know that I missed company like so many have,” she responds. “I missed going outside to breathe different air when we were confined to our rooms.”

I open another cardboard box in the sea of cardboard boxes. It’s filled with kitchen gadgets like a zester, cake decorating tools, and a cookie press. I hold up a comb-like item. She explains that it’s a guide for evenly chopping onions.

She tells me to pack up the items. She’ll give them to a staff member who is learning to bake.

“Some days I really miss baking,” Mom says.

Even when she’s wearing a mask, I can tell she’s smiling as she talks about a baked-pork-chop dish her grandmother used to make. Mom, the queen of pies, describes how neither the Valley Cares’ kitchen staff nor the farmstand down the road can top her own wild blueberry pie.

I have to agree. But then again, I’ve always loved my mom’s cooking.

Remember, she asks me, all the blueberry muffins she used to make, the ones with the sugar on top?

“I miss making chocolate chip cookies and eating the batter,” she adds.

“What about not seeing family regularly? Or going to the farm?” I ask, referring to the homestead of our family’s 94-year-old matriarch in western Massachusetts.

Mom shakes her head. It’s all good.

She talks to her mother daily. She speaks with her cousin who lives outside of Boston a couple of times a week, “until we run the battery out on the phone.”

“Give me a good book and I’m happy for days,” Mom continues, ever the librarian.

I shouldn’t be surprised.

There’s a phrase in the play Hamlet about the life of the mind and imagination that always reminds me of my mom. It goes: “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space.”

But I am surprised. I worried so much about her emotional health during our year apart. I assumed she worried, too.

And so, my mom and I sit in our own continuum of assumption and choice.

“So, really, you’re doing OK? I can stop worrying about your emotional and mental health?” I ask.

Mom looks around at the piles of moving boxes.

“If I lose my mind, it’s nothing to do with Covid,” she says.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #606 (Wednesday, March 31, 2021). This story appeared on page A8.

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