When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the nation into lockdown, long-term care facilities were chained the tightest. Residents of Washington’s nursing homes, assisted-living wings and memory-care units were limited to their rooms. No touching, no walks, no connections.
Meanwhile, their loved ones were on the outside, speaking through phone calls, dropping off care packages, waving from parking lots. The rules are loosening, but with strict limits.
These restrictions had a specific impact on couples with one spouse living in a facility and the other elsewhere. They’ve spent most of their lives together, and their initial separation was supposed to be the hardest part. They reassured themselves there were still visits, outdoor excursions, even vacations. They could still be with their partner, their sweetheart, their beloved. Until lockdown.
Over three months, The Seattle Times followed four couples separated because of COVID-19-related lockdowns at senior facilities. This week we share the stories of two.
Diane and Jim Lewan
It had been five months since Diane Lewan last saw the man she has been married to for 44 years in September. It has been about that amount of time since they’d had a conversation.
They live close to each other. Diane, 90, lives in their Federal Way house; Jim Lewan, 85, lives in a nearby adult family home. But their phone conversations haven’t gone well because Jim can’t really speak. Seeing each other in person, separated by space and a pandemic lockdown, would be too much for Diane to handle.
"To see each other and not be able to communicate, and all I could do was wave, to me that would be too emotional," she said. "To see him and not really visit him."
Unable to use his legs because of a stroke, Jim spends most of his time in a wheelchair or bed. His speech is limited to a few words, so pre-pandemic visits consisted of sitting together and watching television. Jim would look at the screen and say "wow." He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but he usually recognized his wife.
On March 13, Diane went to see him and was told she couldn’t. There was a restriction, and she wouldn’t be able to see him until the pandemic settled.
The two met at what was essentially a blind date at a dinner. Diane had an extra ticket to the dinner hosted by Washington Mutual, where she worked, and her manager suggested she take his friend. They met at the event, and "things seemed to click." But she didn’t hear back from him, so she called him herself. That’s how it started. They enjoyed each other, had a lot of fun.
Diane was divorced with four daughters, and Jim had never married. She basically proposed to him, she said with a laugh.
After he retired from Boeing, the couple filled their time with going out to lunch every Saturday and going on cruises.
His decline began in 2016, after his first stroke. Then came head injuries, more strokes and the moves to a rehab center and finally his adult family home.
She’s in regular contact with his caretaker and feels confident his health is stable. The care isn’t what worries her. She wonders how much he is aware of what’s happening: Does he really know that Diane isn’t there? Does he understand why?
"It’s difficult not being able to see him and know he is well and reassure him that I am well, too," she said. One of her daughters visits a few nights a week and helps around the house.
Diane goes grocery shopping, wearing a mask, of course. But she misses her husband. Maybe, she, thinks, it’s actually more difficult for her than for him.
"I really just miss his company and his sense of humor," she said. "It’s so sad that he is such a good fellow and that this would happen to him."
"Goodness knows" when Diane will see Jim again. She just hopes her husband remembers her.
Update: Diane Lewan visited Jim in early September, on their 44th wedding anniversary. During their outdoor, socially distant meeting, she recounted their honeymoon and their night at a tavern, though he couldn’t recall it. When she said goodbye, she pretended to throw him a kiss, and he smacked his lips back at her.
Cheng and Yao Hsu
Not much was said during the first outdoor visit between Cheng and Yao Hsu, who have been married for 52 years and unable to see each other since mid-February.
Cheng, 79, has advanced dementia; Yao has stage IV cancer. Both have trouble talking. But when Cheng did speak, he talked about how nice his wife looked, even with a mask.
"It was tough emotionally," said their son, Mike Hsu. "Mom started crying and there’s not a lot of words, but it was a very special moment."
Yao, 77, used to visit her husband at Aegis Gardens in Newcastle daily, though the frequency dwindled starting in November, when she received her cancer diagnosis. But Cheng would occasionally come back to their house in Renton. His last trip home was in mid-February, before Aegis shut its doors in the pandemic.
Cheng has lived at the Newcastle facility for about two years. He seems to recognize his loved ones, and his long-term memory is fairly strong. He and Yao were introduced by a family member in Taiwan. They lived in Topeka, Kansas, where Cheng was a urologist, but they always wanted to retire in the Seattle area to be closer to Yao’s extended family. They moved there in 2014.
The couple connected through FaceTime calls during the lockdown; Cheng would often ask if someone could take him home or if they could go out to eat. In July, they got to see each other with Aegis’ "outdoor living room," a 7-foot plexiglass dividing wall on three sides that allows residents to meet with visitors outside.
One nice part about the outdoor living area was its proximity to the parking lot, so Yao didn’t have to walk a long way, Mike said. There was a spot for her to plug in her portable oxygen tank. Each side had a table with a vase of pink orchids.
Cheng called Yao and Mike by name, and they talked during their 30 minutes together. But for the couple, the conversation wasn’t the most important part, Mike said. "A lot of it is just sitting there," he said, "and being together."
Update: Yao Hsu died Sept. 7 surrounded by her sisters, children and grandchildren. Cheng Hsu told his wife he loved her through FaceTime, and he was able to visit her one last time, at the funeral home.