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While Thousands Protested Freely, My Grandmother Died Alone During Lockdown


“Don’t worry,” the mob said, “Grandma is safer than ever.”

Except my grandmother wasn’t. She died “recovering” in a skilled nursing facility a week-and-a-half after a fall at home broke her neck. From walking and talking, my 88-year-old grandmother deteriorated into a catatonic state in quarantine. Her family was instructed to socially distance for her health and safety.

As my home state of Pennsylvania reopens under Gov. Tom Wolf’s phasing process, visitation restrictions in senior living facilities remain in effect for 28 additional days following a county’s entrance to the “Green Phase.”

“The [care] provider should be creative in ways that assist the individual to remain in contact with family and friends and feel comfortable with the method of communication,” the state’s Department of Human Services noted in a June press release.

DHS recommended a few creative ways the elderly can communicate with their loved ones while adhering to government social distancing guidelines. Among these suggestions were “window interactions,” “glass door viewings,” using virtual assistance such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home, and video calls through FaceTime, Zoom meetings, Skype, and Facebook Messenger.

Many if not most senior citizens don’t know how to video chat. My grandmother hated technology. She didn’t understand “gizmos” or “gadgets” or Google Meet. In the social media and social distancing age when electronic communication is vital, this disconnect created a generation gap that plunged — if not pushed — my grandmother’s descent.

“Why didn’t you come see me?” my grandmother cried the first night, alone.

The nurses told me that a patient’s recovery is dependent on his or her family’s supporting presence. In my grandmother’s skilled nursing ward, there was one phone for the 17 residents. The one weekend she was there, family members of other occupants hogged the landline.

And while medical discussions can occur over the phone, it erases much of the human aspect. Conversations about your loved one’s long-term care should be in person and not taken lightly. For many in hospice, these are end-of-the-life decisions. There has to be a middle ground between no visitation and open doors. I know some would go to extreme lengths, even wearing hazmat suits if they had to.

Perhaps the elderly are forgotten afterthoughts, pushed to the periphery of society because we believe they no longer contribute to the social fabric — they’re “non-essential.” Or perhaps it’s just easier for everyone to go about business as usual, convincing ourselves that we did our duty as sons and daughters, then wiping our hands clean.

But as most senior citizens are at the end of their lives in lockdown, isn’t that a majority of Americans’ worst fear — dying alone?

We’re supposed to honor thy mother and father. We were taught and raised to respect our elders. But the due diligence of the past is replaced by the evolved health care of the present — for comfort and convenience.

This is not a dissertation against institutionalized senior care or to lift the “no visitation” policies for our most vulnerable populations. It is, however, a message to not socially distance ourselves from our aging loved ones year-round.

I can’t imagine the betrayal and abandonment my grandmother must have felt. It took 10 days of separation from the hospital to the nursing home to her deathbed — an eternity surrounded by unknown people trapped in an unknown place where days blended into nights. I’m fairly certain my grandmother died of a broken heart.

I’m plagued with awful, gnawing questions I can’t seem to wrest from my head. Who held her hand when she died? Did anyone tell her that everything was going to be okay? Did anyone tell her there was nothing to fear?

When you tend to someone on her deathbed, her passing is engraved in your memory by sensory experience. You hold her hands as you hear her take her dying breaths. We were deprived of this. It felt like my grandmother just vanished. One minute she was there. And then… she was gone.

My grandmother was a loss I couldn’t see or hear or touch. I could only notice it in the traces she left behind: timestamps of phone calls from the nursing facility; her pile of disheveled clothes stuffed in a garment bag in disarray; the neck collar delivered home, splashed with a dried mixture of blood and applesauce — presumably from one of the last meals she had alive.

We spent the day before my grandmother’s passing outside her nursing room window. She was too weak to open her eyes to see us standing there in the green overgrowth. Her slurred words were now just soft whimpers. The nurses explained her muscle spasms were anxious tics. The next day, my mother was informed of her mother’s death over the phone in real-time.

Only 10 people were allowed at the Mass service originally, including the priest. My mother pushed for 15. We had to be judicious with which family members could attend. My grandmother had seven children, 11 grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren. If the funeral had occurred a week later, when Allegheny County moved to the “Yellow Phase,” the governor would have allowed 25 of us.

The viewing was held a day after Mother’s Day. One by one, we approached our mother, our mother-in-law, our grandmother, and kissed her goodbye forever. We watched her being lowered into the vault from the warmth of our cars. We were told to stay away for the safety of the gravediggers.

Less than a dozen-and-a-half of us stood six feet apart in a semicircle surrounding my grandmother’s casket as the protesting masses roared across the nation and hundreds attended the funeral of an ordinary man no more accomplished than our dearly beloved. One by one, the shedding tears fell beneath our masks.