FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – One hundred and 14 days. That’s how long Mary Daniel went without seeing her husband after the coronavirus banned visitors from his nursing home, separating the couple for the first time since he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's seven years ago.
When the Jacksonville nursing home locked down in March, Daniel didn’t think it would last long. The 57-year-old, who runs a medical billing company, promised Steve she would not leave his side after his life-altering diagnosis at the age of 59.
But the 66-year-old thrived at Rosecastle at Deerwood and became known as the mayor of the facility, sitting at the front desk and hugging every visitor and delivery person. They settled into a peaceful routine. Every night, Mary headed to the facility, changed Steven into his pajamas and the two cuddled in bed and watched TV.
On March 11, she got a call from the home forbidding her from returning as nursing homes across the state went on lockdown to prevent the virus from spreading among its vulnerable patients.
Undaunted, she asked about taking a volunteer position. When that didn’t work, she offered to bring in the therapy dogs she raises for wounded veterans into the facility for the residents. Still, no.
“Can I get a job?” she asked with sincerity, marking each day apart from her husband with growing unease. “I’m throwing all these things out.”
She watched as people across the country found creative ways to connect with loved ones now locked away, but it’s different with dementia patients. Steve doesn’t complete sentences, so video chats were useless.
She tried two “window visits,” but Steve cried both times. He didn’t understand why she was so far away. It was torture and she vowed not to return until she could hold him. Dementia patients decline more quickly without human touch, she said.
She emailed the governor every day, along with anyone else who would listen as the days stretched into months. She joined a support group on Facebook, “Caregivers for Compromise Because Isolation Kills Too," and has become an advocate.
“My husband is 5 miles away from me, but I can’t get to him,” she said. “It’s like he’s died, but it’s worse than him dying because he’s not at peace."
Then out of the blue, the phone rang three weeks ago. It was the corporate office at Steve’s nursing home. They had an opening for a part-time dishwasher. Was she interested?
She jumped at the chance, and went through a drug test and 20 hours of video training on hazardous waste disposal and food safety, knowing Steve was on the other side.
Kelley Withrow, the facility’s executive director, stressed that the visitation ban is necessary but acknowledged it’s “been hard on families and residents alike, so we felt creative solutions were necessary, especially in the case of Mary and Steve.”
Now, twice a week Daniel finishes her office job, heads to the nursing home kitchen and scrubs dirty dishes for 90 minutes. She said she's “doing everything in my power to get to my husband, because he needs me to touch him.”
She worries for the families still separated.
On Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis said he was considering loosening the state’s ban on visitations at nursing homes for loved ones who can take a rapid-response test for the virus before entering the facility.
“There's a hopelessness; there’s a helplessness,” Daniel said. “Hundreds of thousands of people are feeling that right now. They’re dying alone, and it’s tragic. It’s bordering on cruelty at this point.”