Reconnecting through glass

Theresa Vargas

THE WASHINGTON POST – Only three months ago, Anna Epstein sat in a theatre with her mother and daughter, watching the movie Cats. That day feels so distant.

Distant enough that on a recent night, as Epstein watched the movie with her nine-year-old daughter at home, just after the song Memory played, she received an email that left her sobbing.

Her mother’s assisted living centre, she learned, had figured out a way for families to safely visit.

“Mommy, what’s wrong?” she recalled her daughter Ridley asking when she noticed her crying. She assured her, “These are happy tears.” Before that email came, Epstein hadn’t seen her mother face-to-face for weeks.

At first, she decided to stay away from the Brookdale Arlington in Virginia because she had travelled out-of-state and didn’t want to unknowingly carry the novel coronavirus inside the building. And now, the assisted living centre, like many places that house the elderly, who are the most vulnerable to the deadly virus, allows only essential personnel inside.

Donna Forsman meets with daughter Anna Epstein and granddaughter Ridley at Brookdale Arlington in Virginia after being kept apart for weeks by virus issues. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
An elderly woman meets with her son at the Brookdale Arlington assisted living center in Virginia

What that has meant for the 143 residents there is that regular visits have become mostly virtual ones.

A wife who once took her husband his dry cleaning every day, because he has dressed sharply his entire life, has to leave that dry cleaning at the door.

Sisters who took regular walks through the courtyard together, singing songs aimed at stirring nostalgia, have been forced to stop taking those shared steps.

Daily lunches, weekly dinners, real-life hugs – they have all been put on hold.

That press of the pause button on human interactions, of course, is not unique to those residents. Social distancing has forced most of us to pull away from people we used to gravitate toward – co-workers, friends, family members – but the loss of time together is arguably crueller for those who have less of it to lose or whose memories are slipping away.

The residents at Brookdale Arlington range in age from 60 to 101, and many have some form of dementia. That means staff members have to tell some of them again and again about the virus. They have to remind some of them day after day why no one is visiting.

Which is what makes what happened there on Friday so meaningful. That day, in an effort to give residents and their relatives a way to form new memories, the staff turned the two glass doors between a dining room and an outdoor courtyard into a meeting space.

They decorated the area with paper flowers and green vines, and placed comfy chairs on each side of those doors.

Residents wouldn’t be able to embrace their visitors, but at least they could see them. They could touch the glass and know that only a sliver of space separated them from their spouses, siblings, children and grandchildren.

The staff called the event Spring Fling.

Really, though, they could have called it anything and Epstein would have shown up.

She and Ridley, arrived just after noon, eager to see Epstein’s mother, Donna Forsman. The 78-year-old, in her younger years, worked in advertising and wrote “The ‘21’ Cookbook” with chef Michael Lomonaco.

Forsman had helped the staff on Thursday night to decorate the space. She told them that she wanted to make sure it was perfect for her granddaughter.

By the time the girl slipped into her chair, Forsman was already waiting. She wore a long floral skirt that purposely matched the decorations around her and, by chance, also the bouquet of flowers her granddaughter had brought her as a surprise.

Ridley pressed a palm against the glass, and her grandmother did the same.

They then grabbed a phone and talked.

Ridley told her what she is studying now that her school is closed. She talked about the ocean, planets and bees. “They’re not black and yellow,” she said. “They’re brown and yellow.”

During another moment, she told her grandmother, “You look pretty. How are you holding up?” Epstein asked her mom when they spoke. “You need some Netflix recommendations?”

She also asked her if she needed any snacks. Forsman requested salt, Fritos and Peppermint Patties.

As the two talked, Epstein occasionally turned to her daughter to remind her, “Stop touching your face.”

Despite the pink paper flowers in front of them and the cherry blossoms floating to the ground behind them, there was no forgetting the bleak reason they weren’t inside. Hand sanitiser sat on a nearby table.

A bottle of disinfectant rested on the brick edge of a foot-level flower bed. And Forsman held a handout that read, “Practicing Social Distancing.”

Epstein said her mom is in the early stages of dementia, and while she is aware of what is going on with the virus, she needs occasional reminders of the dangers.

When she was told about the visit, she asked the staff if she could sit on the courtyard swing with her granddaughter. She had forgotten they couldn’t touch.