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The world stopped. They didn’t


Reneé Richardson-Wendee

Assisted living facility administrator
Rotary Club of Oceanside, California

When the stay-home order first came down, I suddenly went from being “the adored administrator” to “the warden.” Families were getting really angry with me. But then they saw how bad it was getting.

My residents are all elderly. My youngest here is 86 years old; most of them are in their 90s. Currently I’m taking care of eight assisted living residents, who are on total lockdown. We have no guests whatsoever coming in to see them. No family members are allowed in to see their loved ones. For the residents, it’s really, really difficult. Their lives have been cut off from their daughters, their sons, their grandkids. They’re only seeing me and their caregivers. It’s heartbreaking.

A lot of them are bewildered. One of my residents said to me yesterday, “I don’t like you anymore.” I said, “Why not?” She said, “Because of the mask. I want to see the face behind the mask.” I said, “I can’t take it off. I’m wearing it to protect you.” Another one, who has a bit of dementia, thinks she did something wrong and that’s why she has to stay in her room and eat alone.

It’s a tightrope you walk. We only can go from work to home, home to work. We can’t shop, because it would be too dangerous if we brought the virus into our facility. As the administrator, I have the families to take care of, the residents to take care of, and the caregivers to take care of, because they’re scared as well. A couple of nursing homes here in California had to evacuate residents when staff members did not show up to work.

I’ve been in the industry for almost 32 years. It’s my passion. But a couple of Sundays ago, I had worked for 21 days in a row, 16-hour days. The adrenaline drives you. But that Sunday, I got up and said, “I have to go to work … but I can’t go to work … but I’ve got to go to work ... but I can’t go to work.” It was a wake-up call. I had to figure out a balance. Now I’m generally home by 6 p.m. I try to work only about four hours on Saturdays and Sundays.

We’re starting to fall into a normal pattern. The first couple of weeks were chaotic, but now it’s more of a routine. We’re playing games with residents in their rooms. We’re bringing extra staff in, so there’s someone who can take people out in their wheelchairs for a walk, sit in the rose garden, or play the card game Phase 10 with them. Some of the residents are getting used to it, but the ones with mild dementia aren’t. Every day it’s new to them. You have to explain over and over: “No. We’re not sick. You’re not sick. We’re wearing masks because we don’t want anyone to get sick.”

The rest of the world is going to be more relaxed in opening up, but I think they’re going to keep the elderly facilities pretty much on lockdown. I don’t know if it’ll always be this strict; there might be opportunities where they’ll say, “OK, family, if you wear gloves and a face mask and if you sit 6 feet apart, yes, we might let you in.” But this population is the most vulnerable. If the virus gets in here, these residents would not be alive for long.

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• This story originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.