Residents lift weights at a socially-distanced exercise class at Knollwood. Others joined the class by Zoom from their rooms.
As she approached her eighties, Priscilla Cunningham found a new calling. She became the librarian at Knollwood, a D.C. retirement facility that serves veterans and former diplomats and their families.
"I discovered what I was going to be when I grow up," as she puts it.
That was five years ago. Since then, she's gotten good at helping people find the perfect book — "Our biggest selling component is, oddly enough, not Elizabethan poetry, it's mysteries and thrillers," she says. She's comfortable with the other demands of the job, too. She's used to marshaling her volunteers, running book events, and writing columns in the resident newsletter.
Most people have specific memories of the final, golden moments before the pandemic swept in. Cunningham's are book-related. She had just finished a book sale when Knollwood went into lockdown and residents were told to stay in their apartments.
Priscilla Cunningham in her apartment at Knollwood.
After a brief shutdown, the library reopened. But work for Cunningham and a handful of other volunteers was different. Now they were helping residents find reading material to break the monotony and isolation of the pandemic.
Cunningham is no stranger to monotony and isolation, herself. She and her dog live alone in a small apartment. Her husband, an army veteran, died two decades ago of conditions related to exposure to Agent Orange.
"You either can get up in the morning and look in the mirror and say, well, 'How is the only person I'm talking to today?' — or not," Cunningham says.
Now, with nearly all residents and staff at Knollwood vaccinated, the community is beginning to return to its regular rhythms — with regular in-person exercise classes, book discussions, and craft classes.
"I don't recognize half of them because their hair is a little closer to white. They wear a mask that covers their face," Cunningham says. "I am getting to the point where I can tell eyebrows apart."
Everyone still wears masks outside of their apartments, but residents are finally seeing family, cautiously resuming social activities, and enjoying the feel of not being afraid to get sick. And everyone is reflecting on the toll the pandemic has taken for the last 14 months.
"Everything has run together into this COVID experience. And I'm not really sure I know how long it was," Cunningham says. "It seemed forever."
Priscilla Cunningham walks through the library at Knollwood.
A military approach to the pandemic
Knollwood weathered the pandemic fairly well, especially considering how hard-hit D.C.-area senior living facilities were by the pandemic. At its height in the winter, nursing homes alone accounted for close to half of COVID deaths in Maryland and Virginia, and a quarter in D.C. Many facilities struggled against a perfect storm of factors: close congregate living, residents with multiple comorbidities, staff who frequently work multiple jobs at different facilities, and shortages of protective equipment and access to coronavirus testing.
But after a few clusters of cases last spring, Knollwood went more than 150 days without detecting another resident coronavirus infection; currently, it hasn't had one in 15 weeks. Just nine Knollwood residents — all in the building's skilled nursing area, with multiple comorbidities — have died. Two staff, one of whom also worked in another health care setting, also succumbed to the disease.
True to the facility's ties to the armed forces, leadership at Knollwood treated the pandemic as a massive logistics and communications challenge. They held daily situational calls, and they found suppliers for coronavirus testing and protective equipment when both items were critical but scarce. They chose to test all their residents and staff long before the federal government started mandating it. They diagrammed and then rehearsed the flow of every mass testing event and every vaccination clinic to make them as efficient as possible.
"In Afghanistan and Iraq, we were protecting our firebases from insurgents. Here, we were protecting our residents and our community from COVID. We screened, we had layered protection," says Colonel Paul Bricker, a veteran who now serves as Knollwood's Chief Operating Officer. "But at the end of the day, it was leadership and initiative that was hugely important in this fight."
The staff — who are required to be vaccinated as a condition of their employment — are finally breathing a little easier.
"We are coming to work without that feeling of being faced with this enemy and having no hope with it," says Arlette Kesseng-A-Mbassa, the building's director of nursing. "So we're feeling good."
Other staff echo the same sense of relief, particularly after the vaccines became widely available at Knollwood.
"I feel probably 95 percent safe to go home [now]," says Noemi Montano, a certified nursing assistant who is also a single mother. For long months of the pandemic, Montano was responsible for performing coronavirus rapid testing on staff and visitors to the facility.
But though the fight may be easing now, Knollwood staff say it's not over. Kesseng-A-Mbassa is watching the news of variants of the disease and the duration of vaccine immunity closely. And she's also aware that the hidden costs of the pandemic — the grinding exhaustion, the effects of the trauma and isolation — are beginning to come due for her staff.
"What I've really learned in the past year is that you have to be careful — I have to be careful as a leader, because I need to pay attention to people's mental needs. I was focusing on the physical need, meaning coming to work and going in, and not really paying attention to what they were feeling like," Kesseng-A-Mbassa says.
Residents relax in the main hallway at Knollwood.
Many are concerned about long-term burnout in the senior care industry, at Knollwood and across the country. An April poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation and The Washington Post found that 62% of frontline health care workers felt negative effects on their mental health due to the pandemic.
"The narrative of health care heroes can be a little bit harmful because we're all people, too," says Knollwood wellness director Sarah Prowitt. "I think after the fact, we're going to see increased burnout, even among our nursing staff, among doctors and among workers and the senior living industry."
Prowitt herself is no stranger to the stress and strain of the past year and more. Prowitt's father was suddenly hospitalized with the coronavirus last summer. She threw herself into work to keep her mind off of his illness, sometimes putting in eleven-hour days. He recovered, and now that she's vaccinated, she was finally able to see him and give him a hug.
"He told me he loved me and I teared up a little," she says. "I was like, 'I appreciate you so much.' And he goes, 'I'm always on Team Sarah.'"
'A baby step at a time'
Knollwood residents, too, are beginning to heal from the hard experiences of the past year — especially the separation from family.
"I'm matriarch in my family, and I have missed being able to give the support in the close way," says Diane Reasons, 78, who lost a brother and a close cousin during the pandemic.
"Hopefully we'll have some time where we can start to close that gap again," says her husband Paul, 80, a retired four-star admiral. "That's what we're counting on."
In the meantime, the Reasons say they drew on their own military experiences to manage the stress and boredom of the pandemic. In the course of Paul's military career, the two weathered their share of difficult times, moving their family from coast to coast 12 times, and dealing with the separation of long deployments. In the pandemic, he fell back on habits he cultivated to pass the time at sea — a lot of reading, supplemented by British detective shows — and she kept up her near-daily exercise routines on Zoom, a coping mechanism from her days parenting their children alone while he was away.
The sense of community at Knollwood helps, too. Residents called each other to do health and welfare check-ins throughout the pandemic.
"It's not like you're adrift on a raft somewhere," says Paul Reasons. "We're all in this together."
Paul and Diane Reasons say their military experiences, including cross-country moves and long deployments for Paul, a retired four-star admiral, gave them the tools to weather the pandemic.
Now, the Reasons are returning to social life at Knollwood, attending floor happy hours and doing projects in the community's makerspace. The couple saw their children and grandchildren for the first time in person last month, at an outdoor dinner celebrating his 80th birthday. They did not plan to give anyone a hug quite yet, though.
"We're taking it as a baby step at a time," says Paul Reasons. "We just cannot cast caution to the wind."
The experience of seeing family again in person can be disorienting, no matter the endless hours on Zoom or the phone. Cunningham, the resident librarian, says she felt a wave of anxiety about driving to see her oldest son and grandchildren in Berlin, Maryland. And when she got there, she realized how much had changed in the year since she'd seen them in person.
"I had not considered, because they stayed in contact with me, all the things in their lives that had changed," she says. "You can't take people that you're skin on skin with and miss a year of their lives."
Now, Cunningham can see family members regularly at her apartment for dinner. She's teaching her grandchildren how to play bridge — "a game out of the dark past of humanity" — and she has one son over regularly to watch Nationals games. Slowly, they're all making up for lost time.
"My youngest, who is the least huggy of my three sons, won't walk out of the apartment without giving me a hug," she says.
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.