I expected Mary Ellen Scott to sound sad. This year—Scott’s 18th as a resident of the Montrose Health Center in southeastern Iowa—has been especially hard on people in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. Nationwide, nearly 40 percent of all coronavirus-related deaths have happened in long-term-care facilities; my grandmother died of COVID-19 in April after contracting the virus in her Minneapolis assisted-living community. In these places, many residents who have been confined to their rooms for months are now counting down the last lonely days before they can finally receive a vaccine.
Scott, though, was chipper when she answered the phone. Like others, she’s struggled with the long months of isolation. But she’s gotten used to being alone. When you’re 88, she told me, “it’s not like you’re gonna be running around anyway.” She reads a lot and calls her children, whom she misses dearly. Like the rest of us, she’s just muddling through.
COVID-19 hit Iowa in the spring, and Scott has been unable to attend group dinners or bingo nights ever since. Fortunately, confinement suited her, at least at first. For months, she kept to the same routine. She’d sleep in every day—“someone’s always on my case to get up”—and take her morning pills with a glass of prune juice. She’d make her bed and brush her teeth before spending hours in her chair with a book, or sewing a little, or rearranging her belongings: a hairbrush in a different drawer, a new set of pictures on display. In the afternoon, she’d take a nap, and after that, it was suppertime. (“You’re a good sleeper,” I told her. “I know!” she replied). She feels healthier, more spry, in the evenings, so after dinner, she’d stay up late watching home-remodeling shows or news programs. She’d request her favorite snack from the dining-room fridge. “If I wait until midnight, nobody says anything about my pickles except the night nurse,” she said.