I Make the Pandemic Fun for People Who Don’t Realize It’s Happening

At an assisted living facility for people with dementia, it’s my job to entertain the residents.

a person pushing a wheelchair
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by itakayuki/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

First there is the obligatory “things are going to get strange around here” meeting. We take turns using the words temporary, priority, safety, and adjusting. It is ominously formal; my co-workers sit completely still aside from the occasional confirming nod. This assisted living/memory care facility is going to become a prison, I think. Our new job is to convince the people living here otherwise.

On the one hand, some people who live here already believe they are locked up. They walk or wheel themselves to the front door and demand to get into their car (which doesn’t exist), and for us to call their parents (who have been dead 30 years). Things won’t be so different for them. I thought: They will go on screaming at us, and we will go on ushering them out of the lobby and into the activity room. But for many others, dementia works toward their happiness, not against it. They wake up each day believing they are at an all-expenses-paid resort and laze around, carefree. Of course, we were all worried about the first type of resident and worse, that everyone living here would become one.

Initially, that is what happens. “Go back to your room,” we chant, over and over again until no one can stand the words. “Your safety is our priority,” we say. It is only a “temporary adjustment.” We extract them from rooms of other residents and the common spaces. “Your meals will be delivered to your room” is another common refrain. We find them sitting in corners of the dining room, even though all of the lights are off and the central tables have been pushed to the edges of the room to make space for 100 boxes of takeout containers and plastic cutlery.

They begin inventing excuses to break the new rules. “I need to ask the front desk a question,” they insist, but end up sitting on the staircase or pacing in the hallway. “I feel like a caged lion,” one of them admits to me, “I ask everyone the same question thinking I’ll hear something new.” It is heartbreaking and bleak. With my mask on, they can barely recognize me; they don’t trust me. I’ve learned a person can grow tired of being frightened. Many gave up after a few weeks and now stare at their TVs or out of their windows humming to themselves.

The biggest challenge is meals. Every department is ordered to help with meals. Three times a day, the front desk and activities staff, resident assistants, nurses, and even the chief financial officer work together to push carts full of food around the building. We mark down how long we enter each resident’s room and take note of who didn’t eat their last meal. In the first month, we are all clumsy and screw up the protocol, forgetting to change our gloves or forgetting who is a vegetarian or taking so long the food gets cold. It is awkward and sad, and no one agrees about anything. I go home feeling guilty for everything, including being the only housemate with a job.

I wasn’t searching for a bright side, but it came nonetheless.

Before the pandemic, only a select few staff members ever got to see the residents’ rooms. I work in the activities department. Before March, my job involved shuffling people into seats to watch a pianist, doing a presentation on astronomy, or setting up the microphone for a poetry reading. I encouraged residents to move on from breakfast so the servers could clean up and brought them to dinner before I left for the day. I never had a reason to go upstairs, to where they sleep, unless I found them walking around without shoes or holding a hair dryer, the cord dragging on the floor behind them.

“Come on, let’s put that back in your room!” I would suggest and stand outside their door while they confusedly returned it.

Now that each staff member has the opportunity to visit all 125 of the residents’ rooms, I get more context on the people who live in them. I notice the residents with their own living rooms, especially rooms full of furniture and personal belongings, were the same residents to leave directly after meals. Those in studios or rooms with bare walls and donated furniture often lingered in the dining and TV rooms. A few residents who I rarely saw turned out to own cats that perpetually sleep on their owners’ laps or at their feet. I found framed degrees in literature and biology, art pieces they had painted and sculpted, photos of them on horses or mountains, coins from other countries, and instructions in giant print made by their families taped everywhere: “THIS BUTTON OPENS MICROWAVE,” “THIS BUTTON HANGS UP PHONE,” “ARE YOUR HEARING AIDS IN? HAVE YOU HAD WATER TODAY?” One woman frequently explains how she never married or has children but hopes to someday. I was astounded when I saw her wedding pictures on her dresser and photos of her children hung up on the wall.

The residents receive more mail than ever. There are subscriptions to the Human Rights Campaign, ASPCA, and the DNC. There are so many National Geographics. I see handwritten letters from great-grandchildren and old friends and neighbors. On their birthdays, we decorate their doors and bring them a special lunch.

We take them on walks, one at a time, around the block to look at the ocean. We collect them from their rooms and help put their masks on at the door. They are elated to be in the sun, each commenting on the same neighbor’s garden and what a good job they do! I cannot believe how many people here used to garden and how much they know about flowers and soil.

We let them sit together in the courtyard, six feet apart. This space didn’t get much use before. There was always some activity going on inside, the doors to get out there are heavy and old, and there were, even before distancing mandates, a limited number of places to sit. Now it’s everyone’s favorite place. They simply want to sit and chat with each other; they’ll chat about nothing for hours.

We started a “happy hour cart” that goes around every day at three. We bring wine, lemonade, sometimes ice cream or corn dogs. We put a speaker on the cart and play old music. They open their doors when they hear us coming and wave to each other across the hallway.

Best of all are the iPads. As soon as we locked down, corporate sent us two new iPads to use so residents could FaceTime their children. My job now involves racing around the building, holding up the screen so they can see and hear their favorite people. It is amazing to watch. At first, they were completely confused by it. As we wait for their families to pick up, they barely recognize themselves in the front-facing camera. “Who is that?” they ask me. “Who is that old lady?” And then, they suddenly believe their family is in the room, or I am showing them an old video. Eventually, they stopped caring about how it works and can’t wait for their next call. They’ll ask me, “Can you get my son on the TV?”

In staff meetings, we are overflowing with ideas for COVID-friendly activities. We make Netflix accounts so residents can watch reruns of Jeopardy! in their rooms, download apps for checkers and gin rummy. We even set up entire floors of residents in their doorways with cards and stamps for hallway bingo. As it turns out, hallway bingo runs exactly like normal bingo. Actually, it’s even smoother, now that the residents can’t steal one another’s favorite spots at a cramped table.

For more of Slate’s news coverage, subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts or listen below.