Susan Aronovsky visits with her 94-year-old father, Albert Stark, at the S.F. Campus for Jewish Living on March 29, the first time they had seen each other in over a year. (Photo/Camille Cohen)
Susan Aronovsky visits with her 94-year-old father, Albert Stark, at the S.F. Campus for Jewish Living on March 29, the first time they had seen each other in over a year. (Photo/Camille Cohen)

‘The worst is over’: Senior homes reopen for visits after lonely year

Just over a year ago, Susan Cohen Grossman moved her 99-year-old mother, Abby, into the Reutlinger Community in Danville. It was a big day in more ways than one: April 1, 2020, right at the beginning of the pandemic, as senior facilities were seeing worrisome coronavirus outbreaks among their vulnerable residents.

Cohen Grossman wasn’t allowed to go inside. The two had to say goodbye at the curb. The moment is so etched into her memory, Cohen Grossman even remembers the day of the week. A Wednesday.

“You want to know what time I was there?” she jokes.

From that point forward, Cohen Grossman’s time with her mother was limited to medical appointments, video calls and socially distanced outdoor visits that Reutlinger offered as a way for families to safely see their loved ones. It could get cold, so Cohen Grossman would bring her mother a ski jacket and gloves.

But now that assisted-living and skilled-nursing facilities across the country have vaccinated most of their residents and staff, families are able to see each other in person once again. On March 26, Cohen Grossman got to visit with her mother in her room for the first time in a year. No time limit. No ski jackets. Just sitting across from one another, laughing and chatting.

“I’ve never been in this room,” Cohen Grossman said during the visit. “I’ve never seen how my mother lives.”

How is it having her daughter in her room?

“Wonderful,” said Abby, now 100, who passed the time during the pandemic doing crossword puzzles and reading.

After scattered visits held outside, through a window or over the phone, Jewish senior residences in the Bay Area are now gradually opening their doors to visitors as coronavirus cases and deaths at California nursing homes continue to drop.

Susan Cohen Grossman and her 100-year-old mother, Abby, at the Reutlinger Community in Danville. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)
Susan Cohen Grossman and her 100-year-old mother, Abby, at the Reutlinger Community in Danville. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)

It’s a relief for families and their loved ones, who have witnessed the destructive and harrowing toll the virus has taken on seniors, who represent an outsize share of the Covid deaths reported by the state. All three local Jewish senior residences themselves experienced coronavirus cases to varying degrees.

“I’m so happy to see more family members and visitors in the community,” said Clara Allen, executive director of Reutlinger Community, in an email to J. “We’re feeling a sense of return to normalcy.”

Susan Aronovsky’s father lives at the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living in the new Frank Residences, which offers apartments and community spaces. She described his year during the pandemic as “quite hard.”

Before he moved into the Frank Residences in October, Albert Stark, 94, lived in Greenbrae with his wife, Arlene. When she passed away last summer, Stark, who Aronovsky said is prone to depression, “went over the deep end.”

“The lockdown was very challenging for him,” she said. Aronovsky and her father were able to do socially distanced visits, but phone calls and Zoom were a little more difficult because of the technical challenges they presented for Stark.

On March 29, the two were finally reunited.

“It was nice to be able to sit next to him and give him a hug,” said Aronovsky. “It really helped a lot. It was a very difficult year, especially for him. But I feel like the worst is over. And I feel like he can manage now.”

In an email to J., SFCJL’s CEO, Daniel Ruth, described the last 14 months as some of the “longest, most difficult period[s] for nursing home residents, family members and staff.”

“The pandemic cast a pall associated with new or heightened feelings of loneliness, fear and depression over our community members. With the widespread adoption of the vaccine, with utilization rates approximating 98% by both residents and staff, that dark cloud slowly [is] melting away. Our feelings of abandonment, solitude [and] fear [are] now replaced by hope, connectedness and joy.”

It was a very difficult year, especially for him. But I feel like the worst is over. And I feel like he can manage now.

Michael Krasnobrod’s 99-year-old mother, Hedy, lives at  San Francisco’s Rhoda Goldman Plaza, which has assisted living units and memory care. He said that before the pandemic, he would visit once or twice a week and have lunch with her at the café.

During the pandemic, Krasnobrod was able to see his mother outside from a distance or inside on Zoom, which confused her but was better than nothing, he said.

“Being stuck for months on end was really, really, really hard,” Krasnobrod said about his mother. A Holocaust survivor, she has lived at Rhoda Goldman Plaza for 20 years.

But there’s been a “lightening” of the whole situation, said Krasnobrod, since vaccinations were administered in late January and visitation opened at the beginning of March. On March 11, he was finally able to see his mother in her room.

“I hadn’t been that close to her in about a year,” he said. “We’re not time-limited, which makes it a lot easier. You don’t have a 30-minute window to say hi. Now that there is no time limit to hang out.”

Ira Kurtz, executive director of Rhoda Goldman Plaza, said he is “thrilled” that families can finally visit their loved ones in person.

“One-hundred percent vaccinations among our residents has made this a safe and meaningful opportunity for our residents,” he wrote to J. “The friends and family members who visit are an essential part of our community, and their presence in the building has brought joy to so many of our residents.”

Jane Galvan, whose 97-year-old mother, Joan Haskin, also lives at Rhoda Goldman Plaza, said the hardest part of the last year was the “lack of physical closeness.”

Jane Galvan (left) and her mother, Joan Haskin.
Jane Galvan (left) and her mother, Joan Haskin, at Rhoda Goldman Plaza.

Galvan wasn’t able to see her mom in person for a long stretch of time — from March to October 2020 — but did squeeze in a few FaceTime sessions here and there. The two were then able to meet outdoors, in a socially distanced setting, for 25 minutes at a time.

“She was OK with staying inside,” said Galvan. “She likes to be in her apartment anyway. But the hardest thing was not to have visitors. Hugging. Having good conversations. Considering everything, she did very well. She was very realistic about it.”

Then, on March 7, Galvan and her husband, Mike, got to make an in-person visit.

Despite being apart for so long, the mother-daughter dynamic returned to normal quickly: Galvan joked that her mom had saved up some filing and other tasks for her daughter to do. “It was really nice to sit with her in her apartment,” she said. “To [have] privacy. Have cookies. Have tea.”

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler is a staff writer at J. You can reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ggreschler.