Thursday, November 5, 2020

Pandemic Meditations: Walking Away by Cynthia Pringle

As part of this week's Pandemic Meditations, my sister-in-law Cynthia Pringle, shares her Covid story.


Walking Away

by Cynthia Pringle

Age before Beauty by Cynthia Pringle
(used with permission)

About ten years ago, my husband and I moved to a nearby town and into an apartment in a senior living facility. Soon after, I began working there--from escorting residents to the dining area, to helping tidy their apartments, to sitting with them and singing songs to reading or listening to their stories and memories. 

A few years later, my husband and I move into a house, which is better for us and our large dogs, but of course, I continue to work at the facility and with the people who are not only residents but also my community. Sometimes, I bring the dogs by to visit their old friends. My husband and I become involved in helping monarch butterflies migrate to and from Mexico. We share the butterflies and their habitats with the residents. We make a film about it. We give special showing and the residents watch and eat popcorn. 

The residents and I celebrate birthdays and holidays together. We notice the weather. We remark on the news, the food, books, art, the coming days. New friends arrive. Old friends leave. We grieve together. I work there, but it's a work that feels less like work and more like the days I lived with and cared for my grandmother in her final years. 

Years pass like this. 

Then, Covid comes.

When the wave of Covid-19 suddenly hits, the senior living facility is put on lockdown. No visitors are allowed. Outside activities such as the monthly musical entertainment party and popular monthly dinner event that features a speaker are cancelled. The volunteers from the Methodist Church cannot come to lead worship. The beauty shop is closed. And so the staff takes on more duties--leading the residents in worship, calling bingo, playing music via YouTube on a projector screen. Family visits take place via phone calls or FaceTime or window visits. I bring in my banjo ukulele and play old gospel songs during our singalong sessions.

Two months pass. Everything is still in lockdown.

Don's beard is getting long. He wants it trimmed.
Opal wants her hair cut and set.
Rowena needs her bangs trimmed.
Even Thelma, the cook, is desperate to get her hair cut.
Everyone’s hair is getting long and unruly.

But then the owner, Jim, decides to reopen the beauty shop for a day of serious haircutting — even for Jim and his wife, Laura. The problem is, the coronavirus is still raging through Illinois, and nursing homes are proving to be death traps for many of the elderly residents.

I'm upset and concerned for the residents. I don’t think the beauty shop should reopen; the risks are much too high. Hair can wait until the danger subsides. I contact the local Public Health Department and express my concerns. The Health Department agrees that the beauty shop should remain closed.

So on the morning of the proposed hair-cutting day, the Director of the Health Department makes an early morning phone call to Jim. She explains the risks of opening the beauty shop during lockdown and that it should remain closed. Jim tells her that he will not open it until restrictions are lifted.

When I come into work the following day, I see that Thelma's hair is freshly cut. 
So is Opal’s. 
Don's beard is neatly trimmed. 

Jim did not keep his promise and reopened the beauty shop anyway. I'm extremely disappointed and concerned that the residents' health was put at risk for a haircut that could have waited a few more weeks.

Less than a week later, a new resident, Imogene, is scheduled to move in. She's a transfer from a rehabilitation facility, which is experiencing an active spread of coronavirus. I inform Imogene’s family that when she moves in, she will have a 14-day quarantine — as per health department requirements. The family agrees with this, and Imogene moves into a studio apartment.

A few days after she moves in, it's around noon, and I'm setting out the drinks for the residents in the dining room. Jim pauses in the doorway and confronts me about calling the Health Department in regards to the opening of the beauty shop. I ask why he allowed the residents to get their hair cut when the Health Department told him not to. He evades an answer, and tells me to escort Imogene to the dining room. I remind him that she needs to be quarantined for fourteen days, especially since she has transferred from a facility with active coronavirus.

I call the local public health department, and the Director of Nursing ensures me that Imogene should still be under quarantine. To bring her to the dining room with the other residents is to risk the health of the other residents. So I refuse to escort Imogene down and instead bring a tray to her apartment. But the next day, Jim orders other staff members to bring her down to the dining room.

At this point — even mask-wearing is haphazardly enforced — I know that I can no longer work at a place where I feel the residents health and lives are put at risk. So after 10 years of working at a facility of people I love, I decide to resign.

I miss the residents. 
I miss our special times together, the singalongs. 
I miss their stories, their wise advice. 
I miss their smiles, their presence.
I miss hearing their voices as I play.
I miss Mary sitting in a chair in the window light, knitting a colorful hat. 


Cynthia Pringle, photo by Kirby Pringle
Cynthia Pringle is a photographer, writer, and filmmaker. She grew up in a small town in Central Illinois and earned her photography degree from University of Illinois-Champaign. Much of her current work is done in collaboration with her husband Kirby Pringle. Learn more about their work at