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Pandemic struggles aside, things look brighter at retirement communities

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com

This past week marked the second anniversary of that day in 2020 when the first stay-at-home order was announced, upending the lives of 40 million Californians. Since then, it’s been quite an odyssey, complete with a new vocabulary including “socially distanced,” “positivity rate,” “herd immunity” and “variant of concern.” During the ensuing 24 months, we’ve had surges of cases followed by relative calm. We’ve had our hopes raised that the pandemic’s end was in sight, only to revert back to our lives at home.

In March of 2021, four residents of Pilgrim Place ventured out of their isolation to share a meal in Memorial Park. This gift of moderate freedom was granted by the somewhat looser restrictions at the retirement community due to the COVID-19 vaccine. A year ago, only the most vulnerable Los Angeles County residents were eligible get the vaccine, which included people over the age of 65.

At the time, two of those Pilgrims, Bonnie and Rex Britt, expressed their appreciation to the retirement community for keeping all of the residents safe, a sentiment they willingly repeat today.

“Pilgrim Place has kept us all safe, but it’s been a tough year for several reasons,” Bonnie Britt said. “When you come in here, you know this is not the usual type of retirement community … we come in with a commitment to take care of each other. In most [continuing care retirement communities], the administration takes care of the residents. And that is true here too, but we are committed to taking care of each other above and beyond.”

Pilgrim Place is a continuing care retirement community and its response to the pandemic was, and continues to be, governed by Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, which has strict rules.

“Because of that, we are still under more control than some of us would like to be,” Pilgrim Place Moderator Eleanor Loeliger said. “We are not yet allowed to bring anybody on to the campus without strict regulation of checking their documents and checking their temperatures.”

As the moderator, Loeliger serves as a leader on campus and facilitates the community’s town meetings.

Prior to the pandemic, the Britts volunteered at Urban Mission in Pomona, working in the food bank, but had to stop due to the tight restrictions at Pilgrim Place. They are clearly not alone, because it’s a core part of the Pilgrim community to serve others and to work for peace and justice.

But any sacrifice of personal freedom is well worth the price if it keeps another Pilgrim safe, which is part of their commitment to look out for one another. They have returned to the common dining room which was sorely missed during the total lockdown of 2020.

“So, we are eating together and reestablishing that very important part of our community,” Rex Britt said.

“Which is huge,” Bonnie Britt agreed, adding that one Pilgrim in particular, who has extremely compromised health, could not join the group meals if there was a risk of contacting the virus.

“So, all of us are careful going out into the community, because we want her to be able to eat with us,” she said.

The Britts will venture out for the annual family reunion in August, and plan to take a cruise in May, provided that the COVID numbers still look good. When they return from any trip, they must get tested, and quarantine for a period of time before returning to normal life at Pilgrim Place.

“This is a community of travelers, so that has been one of the hard things. Not just being able to see your family, but not being able to travel,” Bonnie Britt said. Residents are beginning to travel, however, with one couple currently in Peru right now, and another in the Galapagos Islands.

The Pilgrims are returning to normal in other small way, such as hosting concerts and the Saturday night movies. However, they still cannot invite friends or family from outside the community to join in the fun.

“Going back to face-to-face meetings, oh, that is so much better than Zoom because that is who we are, we are people who like to be together,” Bonnie said. “I think people are hoping to get back to normal soon. Let’s face it, we are older, we know our time is shorter. It’s not like we have a whole long lifetime to do all these things.”

Unfortunately, and in spite of all their efforts, the couple did end up getting infected.

“Rex and I had COVID in January. How we got it, we do not know because we have been so cautious,” Bonnie said. “We were tested on a Monday and did not know Rex was positive until Friday. So, it scared us to death. I caught it, too, in those five days, but nobody else got sick.”

Less than a mile from Pilgrim Place, Mt. San Antonio Gardens resident, Lee Jackman, spent the last year learning more about herself.

“It has been very good year, I have learned that I love solitude, Jackman said. “And I have learned that I don’t want a life as busy as it had been pre-COVID.”

She spent part of the year writing her second play, “Mega Star Search,” which will be presented in September by her fellow thespians at the Gardens. Her first play, “Reginald and Bambi’s Grand Adventure,” was staged last year.

“We had all Gardeners acting, and most had never acted before, though some had, but my gosh they were terrific. They really stepped up to the plate and it was just grand,” she said.

Jackman has spent her time at home streamlining her life, cleaning out closets and cupboards, giving away clothes and things she did not need. She also discovered an affinity for projects such as a play over committee work, which is ongoing.

The hardest part for Jackman has been the restrictions in the dining room, which makes it more difficult, and less fun, to participate in group meals. In the past, one could venture down and grab any available seat, strike up a conversation, and have a wonderful time. Now reservations are required, and state which people you will eat with, which has taken all of the serendipity out of dinner.

A year ago her husband, retired educator Duane Jackman, moved to the Garden’s skilled nursing facility because of dementia.

“I have just learned so much about dementia, And it’s curious about how the brain works, because he was [home] for dinner and he regaled us with all his teaching and what he did in leadership and education, and it was absolutely fascinating. But if you ask him if he had breakfast or lunch, he can’t tell you.

“I have had to deal with that. I have had to grieve. I have learned that this is not like death grief, but it is grieving nonetheless. He’s not the person he was. So, that has been a big lesson. A huge lesson for me. Essentially saying goodbye to him while he is still here,” she said.

Jackman has the company of her two standard poodles, Tache and the puppy Ruche. She takes the dogs to see her husband every day, but says she’s not as visible around campus as she was pre-COVID. She is also making some plans for travel both near and far.

“I am talking with my son and daughter-in-law about making a trip to Denmark. I feel that at 81, I can have one more European trip. I don’t want to push the envelope too far, but right now I feel as though I would like to do one more.”

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