Face to Face online, connecting across an ocean

The coronavirus has isolated all of us one way or another, but a particularly hard way is for baby boomers separated from their elderly parents, and unable to be with them to hold their hands. That’s what happened to Ann Rennie of Park City, Utah, whose mother, Joy Miles, lives across an ocean. But Ann found a way to make it work.

I have lived for many years in the United States but my mother, who has severe Alzheimer’s, has resided for almost a year in a care home in Surrey, in the United Kingdom. Now, the care home is on lockdown, during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ann Rennie in Park City, Utah.

Because of the complications and restrictions around travel, my previously planned trip to the UK has been cancelled. It’s an unfortunate reality of the crisis. Since now I can’t visit face-to-face, I had been searching for ways to step up contact. Fortunately, the care home has started offering FaceTime calls for family members with residents.

This is an account of my conversation with my mother a couple of days ago.

A caregiver held the tablet close to my mom, so she could see me and I could show her where I live (she had forgotten). I could see that she was comfortably ensconced in her armchair facing the glass door into her little patio.

It’s almost private. There is a large wild rose bush separating ‘her patch’ from her neighbor’s. Beyond the patio is a fence which borders onto the car park.

From her chair, I could see that my mother was studying the movements of the birds coming to her bird-feeder. She has long lost the ability to remember the names of the different types of birds, let alone pronounce them. Instead she calls them ‘big bird’ and ‘baby bird’ according to relative size. Her birding days, one of her favorite activities in the past, are long gone. But I could tell that she seems content just watching them now.

A FaceTime screen capture of Ann’s mom, Joy Miles, who lives in the U.K.

We spent some time discussing the birds, and I showed her the early Spring birds appearing in my own backyard here in Park City. It gave her some comfort that I could see what she could see and vice versa.

We then turned to the artwork on her walls. She likes to study the beautiful paintings she did of exotic birds and flowers, painted while living abroad, which I had collected up for her when we helped her move to the care home. She thinks I did them. With FaceTime, I was able to use the paintings to discuss some of the places she had lived in. She demonstrated only a vague recollection of those times and places, but it allowed us to have a halfway meaningful conversation about her life.

It seems that my family was lucky in the timing for the move of my mother to her care home. With Covid-19 making its unexpected and ugly appearance, there she is now, safely isolated and cared for, her every need taken care of.

She’s unaware of what’s happening in the world. She doesn’t understand about the pandemic. For many relatives, FaceTime is never going to replace a physical visit, but for my mother, who lives in her own world, it proved to be a successful way of communicating, one which I plan to repeat regularly.

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