Yesterday Mom called me and said she was quarantined.
“It’s just terrifying,” she said. “They came in to wake me up in gas masks.”
“I’m not allowed to leave,” she continued, “And if I do, I can never come back, so you better do some investigating with the authorities and see what the deal is here. I’m not sure what kind of hoops you’ll have to jump through with the legal system if you want to see me.”
I was pretty sure I was getting a semi-distorted report from Mom, as usual. But her narratives are always constructed upon a good chunk of truth. It sounded like something weird was going on over there.
When I spoke with a caregiver over the phone, she stated that there was a “flu epidemic,” so they were taking major precautions. I found that odd, since I’d left the residence less than 15 hours ago, and at that point everything had been perfectly fine. I have a pretty solid idea as to how flu manifests and how it’s identified, and it doesn’t usually descend out of the blue within a protected group like that.
I was able to clarify later that a handful of people had experienced GI/bathroom upset after their Christmas outings and festivities, (is that unusual for this population? or for the population in general?) and that 1-2 people in the other section of the building (assisted living) had “possible flu symptoms”. When I asked more about the possible flu symptoms, it turned out that the only reports had been diarrhea, with no fever, no respiratory distress. I was left perplexed and more than slightly annoyed. If anything, why weren’t they investigating possible food poisoning from their dining room?
As a result of the flu precautions, visitors were being asked to wash hands with supervision from staff before entering, to wear a mask at all times, and to rewash under the supervision of the desk clerk before leaving.
Once I got over there for a visit, it was pretty clear that the masked people entering were scaring the residents- especially Mom, who’s baseline anxiety level is already through the roof, even when she takes her medications. It doesn’t take much power of suggestion to nudge her into a full-fledged panic attack.
When I entered her room, Mom was laid out in bed, brow wrinkled, looking terrified. They said I better stay in my room. “I decided I better go back to bed, in case I have it too,” she said. “I think I’m starting to feel sick to my stomach.”
The staff person ran to get a bucket, but this is Mom’s typical fear reaction in any situation, so my sister and her son, who were visiting from the south, helped me convince Carol Jean that not only was she perfectly healthy, but that getting away from the suggestions of tragedy all around her might really be a good thing for her mental health on that sunny day.
We clarified with the staff (who were actually wearing hospital masks, not gas masks) that Mom was free to come and go with us, as long as she kept washing her hands. Mom did a fair amount of crying and moaning before she conceded, and much to her amazement was able to get dressed and head out with us with no signs of illness. We had a full, fun day out on the town, but as soon as we returned to the masked staff in her memory care, her terror returned, and she started feeling “queasy”.
I have a lot of compassion for people who work in institutional health situations. The regulations and precautions they need to heed to safeguard their reputation, standards, and resident safety are dauntingly many.
Yet the part of me that understands human psychology and its relationship to health felt more than a bit skeptical. The preventative extreme yesterday seemed not only a bit ridiculous in its overreactivity, but also detrimental to the mental health of the memory care residents, all of whom have had flu shots and are incredibly emotionally vulnerable, especially to any suggestion of danger.
Most of us would bet on any study that provided loving, unmasked, confident, and reassuring staff members instead of the kind of reaction Mom witnessed, as far as which would ensure that less residents fell prey to any viruses that might be around.
In the spirit of health, it’s a good time to remind ourselves of the best ways to stay healthy this winter: getting lots of sleep, eating well, getting moderate exercise, fresh air and sunshine, and retaining our social ties and sense of humor. And washing hands is great too, though doing so in excess or with antibacterial products might do more harm than good.
While you can augment that basic prescription for health with special diets, supplements, and herbs (like shitake mushrooms, elderberry, old fashioned chicken stock from the bones, etc.), have you noticed that it’s not so much the health freaks who avoid the flu each year, but the people who retain balance in life, enjoy their days, give a lot to others, and don’t obsess about personal protection? I think it’s an interesting irony, and one worth keeping in mind when we’re dealing with the oncoming flu season.
The department of public health and residential settings will understandably need to use different standards, but we can do a lot by not contributing to the fear frenzy and trying to retain a light, humane approach whenever possible.