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Older People Navigate The Holidays During A Pandemic

Bridgewater Retirement Community

We're all navigating the holiday season amidst a pandemic. Senior citizens may have to be especially creative during this time, as the virus makes it particularly dangerous for them to attend worship services, shop, and see their families. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

[Zoom instructional video clip from YouTube]

Many of us are turning to Zoom get togethers and other alternatives to large family gatherings this holiday season. Joyce Nussbaum, the community wellness coordinator for the Valley Program for Aging Services, says that how we frame these modified celebrations is important.

Credit Joyce Nussbaum

JOYCE NUSSBAUM: Different doesn't have to be negative. It depends on how we tell our story. We can talk about how bad things are, or we can talk about times in the past when things have been hard but we've been successful in coping with it, and how we can do that again. Or how we can update our traditions or make new traditions.

One sweet example is –

NUSSBAUM: I know of one person who was … sent a series of notes by a granddaughter, and she was told to open one a day between now and Christmas.

She said it's helpful to think of what you can do for others.

NUSSBAUM: One person made a meal for somebody who lived down the road that she knew had just had a baby.

Credit Natalie Snider

As for Christmas shopping, AARP Virginia has some tips to stay safe if you're doing more online shopping than usual.

NATALIE SNIDER: One is to be suspicious of any discounts larger than 55%. Retailers will discount some stuff, but if you see something that's like 70 or 80% off, it's likely a deal that's a little too good to be true.

Natalie Snider is their associate state director of advocacy. She said to also beware of emails that claim to be from a delivery company – if you're expecting a package, contact the retailer directly. And they should provide you with tracking information right on their website after you place an order. The organization also tracks scam reports on a map available at aarp.org/FraudWatchNetwork.

Retirement communities in the valley are trying to keep their residents safe while still fostering holiday cheer. Bridgewater Retirement Community President Rodney Alderfer said they've had to limit visits to their campus because of the high positivity rate of COVID tests in the area. But all of their residents have iPads that are set up to livestream their traditional holiday events, like a grand tree-lighting ceremony with Santa and the Bridgewater College choir.

Credit Rodney Alderfer

RODNEY ALDERFER: Depression is a real issue around the holiday season for many folks anyway. This is just an added stressor. It's a time when they ordinarily would be able to be with their families. They're not able to do that right now, at least not in the same way that they're used to. So, yes, we're very aware of it, we're obviously very concerned about it, and doing whatever we can do to mitigate that. And so, you know, when we can provide safe opportunities for visitation we do that. When we can't, again we're able to leverage the technology. We're doing lots of Zoom family meetings. We're doing lots of Facetime.

Charlotte Sibold, the executive director of Sunnyside Retirement Community in Harrisonburg, said they've also gotten creative with holiday programming, such as offering outdoor carriage rides with hot chocolate and apple cider.

CHARLOTTE SIBOLD: In the past, Sunnyside always did a holiday gala – a festive kind of formal event with food and wine, and folks would dress up, and of course this year that's not going to happen. But one of the things the staff have planned is a gala to go. Dining is preparing some of their favorite foods in small to-go containers, and then the residents can drive through at our pavilion and pick it up and enjoy it at home.

Credit Pat and Tom Harkins - and dog Scout

Tom Harkins and his wife Pat have been residents of Sunnyside for 18 years. He's a retired defense contractor, and before that, was in the Marine Corps for 30 years.

TOM HARKINS: Like most people here on the campus, we've kind of established our little bubbles for safety.

His sister-in-law also lives at Sunnyside, so the three of them will still get to see one another for their traditional seafood stew on Christmas Eve. He's also part of –

HARKINS: … a technology group of residents that have gotten together. We put on a light show down at the pavilion – it looks like the National Lampoon Christmas vacation, I mean it's all lit up down there.

Another event Sunnyside has planned is a drive-through parade for families in the area to decorate their cars and come see their loved ones from a distance.

HARKINS: One family I know of, or heard of anyway, that has their grandmother in assisted living, has decorated a flatbed truck, and the whole, the grandkids and the kids and everybody else are going to be on it, and the great-grandkids are going to be on the back of this truck that's all decorated as Christmas.

The way Harkins tells it, a retirement community is actually a pretty good place to spend a pandemic.

Credit Sunnyside Retirement Community

HARKINS: Usually, for a military guy, you may, if you don't live on base somewhere, you live out in the community and you may know four or five or six families on your street. Here you know 2 or 300 people. And so we tend to look out after each other … and we have an excellent staff here.


Several of the people in this story said that the seniors in their care would love to receive a Christmas card or video greeting from any listeners who'd like to spread a bit of holiday cheer...

Sunnyside Retirement Community has an angel tree for seniors in their assisted living and healthcare facilities. They'd also love to get Christmas cards. To learn more, please contact Bryce Strawderman at bstrawderman@sunnyside.cc, or just send a card mailed to her attention at 3935 Sunnyside Drive, Suite A, Harrisonburg, VA 22801.

Bridgewater Retirement Community residents would love to see video greetings and recordings of carolers, choirs, bell ringers, or other festive performances. You can send those to Jeannette at jsuter@brcliving.org.

Valley Program for Aging Services is looking for volunteers to call, chat with, and check on the seniors they serve. To learn more, contact Erin at erin@vpas.info. They'd also love to pass on greeting cards, letters, and drawings to folks in their Meals on Wheels program. They operate all over the valley, so check out more information at the VPAS website to see the mailing address of all their senior centers.