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Good to Know: Married for decades, these couples were separated by COVID-19

Every day, twice-a-day, Sheila Belcher was visited by

Every day, twice-a-day, Sheila Belcher was visited by her husband, Don, when she was living at CRISTA Rehab. The Seattle couple have been married for more than 60 years. They communicate by phone on May 29, 2020.  Credit: The Seattle Times / TNS/Alan Berner

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 were on the outside, speaking through phone calls, dropping off care packages and 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.

Don and Sheila Belcher, married for 60 years

Don: Lives in CRISTA independent senior living; Sheila: Temporarily living at CRISTA Rehabilitation Center

On the window of his wife’s room at CRISTA Rehabilitation Center in Shoreline, Don Belcher taped a cardboard display he hoped would give Sheila Belcher a boost for the day. Facing outward are images of spinach and tarte flambee pizza, giving away that the displays were once pizza boxes.

Taped against them and facing inward are photos from their life. Every three or four days he rotates the photos: their adult children with their families; their son when he was 3 giving his mother a flower; their first grandchild and his fiancee, beaming with joy; their 60th anniversary luncheon.

Had Sheila, 84, not fallen and fractured an ankle bone, the couple would be together at their apartment in Cristwood Park, a few minutes’ walk from the rehab center on the CRISTA campus. She began her recuperation at CRISTA in early March, just as lockdown began.

More than 60 years into their marriage, Sheila and Don Belcher were separated. Twice a day, Don, 86, walks around the corner from the building’s entrance, through a thicket of flowers, to the window, where Sheila is waiting. She picks up the room’s landline and hears her husband’s voice. "How are you doing, sweetie?" he asks. "Did you get the apples?"

Before his morning visits he makes a list of emails, messages and cards he’s received, news events and evening TV options to tell her about. Tonight, they’re planning to watch a mystery. He’ll bring over items and food she’s requested, like sliced apples. He comments on her yellow cardigan; she says that she’s bored in there without him.

"He comes twice a day, whether I like it or not," she jokes as they talk on the phone.

Their conversations surround memories together. They met in Philadelphia, where she was studying medieval history and he was in medical school. For 10 years they taught in Ghana and Ethiopia, where Sheila gave birth to one of their children.

They moved to Seattle in the 1970s. Sheila enjoyed meeting international students at Seattle colleges; in total, their family hosted 100 students from other countries over the years. Don says Sheila is the most interesting person he has ever known, with a laugh you can hear across the room.

"These memories lift us beyond our immediate circumstances and concerns," he says. "And make us grateful again for our long journey together."

Sheila has to remain in the facility until she can bear weight on her ankle. Once she can, Don says, "I’ll get to have her back."

"Bye, sweetie," he says to his wife through the window. "I love you. I’ll look forward to seeing you this evening."

Update: Sheila has moved back to the couple’s unit in independent living. "We are glad to be together again," Don said.

Pan and Bob Smith, married for 45 years

Pan: Lives in Edmonds adult family home; Bob: Lives in Edmonds house

Last winter, Pan Smith had no issues with walking or talking. She might get lost, or what she said sometimes didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but given that she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, her family felt fortunate.

She recognized visitors and had a lot coming in and out every day, until lockdown. Within two months of not seeing her husband and children, Pan, who is 71, was bedridden, unable to eat or sit up on her own.

Her husband of 45 years, Bob Smith, watched his wife’s decline through FaceTime.

"Here my wife is sick with this scary disease, and I can’t hold her hand, I can’t be with her," said Bob, 71, who lives in the couple’s home in Edmonds. "It was killing me."

Pan Smith — her nickname is "Pan," though she wouldn’t correct someone if they called her "Pam" — moved to a memory-care facility last December, as her dementia worsened. The first month was great, Bob says. She had visits from family, friends and members of their church, where she worked as a receptionist.

After the facility closed its doors to visitors, Bob and Pan checked in using an iPad. Then residents started reporting COVID-19 symptoms, and nurses were too busy to help Pan with the iPad. She didn’t understand why she didn’t have visits.

"With Alzheimer’s, time is a sacred commodity, and the weeks, hours, months are just very sacred," said their daughter Molly (Smith) Machado. "I have no doubt that our absence dramatically impacted her. It was my clear my mom was going through trauma and was afraid and scared and alone."

Around the time of the facility’s outbreak, Pan was hospitalized for non-virus health issues. During the third hospital visit, she tested positive for COVID-19, though it didn’t affect her lungs in the ways it has for other seniors. It caused her dementia to worsen. When she was released, doctors told the family that she would need hospice care.

Because Pan was considered in an end-of-life situation, Bob was able to visit her, first at the memory-care facility then in an adult family home. He talks to her, holds her hand, feeds her. He plays a recording of her singing when she was 16 that their son digitized. Her eyebrows raise when she hears her voice. She seems to recognize him, the man she met through friends in the Bay Area and married in 1975.

"She knows who I am, because she doesn’t get as excited to see me as she does when she sees one of the kids," he said. "I don’t know if maybe she thinks I’m the one who locked her in."

He’s not sure whether the lockdown made her decline faster. But he wishes he could have visited her every day. "It’s just sad," he said. "We wanted more time."

Update: Pan Smith remains in her adult family home. She continues to decline, her daughter said.

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