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To pass the time in a pandemic 'prison,' seniors get creative

By Nicole Brodeur, The Seattle Times on

Published in Senior Living Features

SEATTLE - When John Suzick moved into the Brookdale Assisted Living facility in West Seattle, his 700-square-foot unit felt just fine. He had a view of the water and room for all he needed. Comfort.

Then COVID-19 hit, forcing Brookdale residents to stay put. The dining area was closed, meals were delivered to their doors, and the walls started to close in.

No more walks to the bank, or to Bartell's or the Thai place Suzick loves. No more meals with the other residents or his regular poker games with his friends.

"I got frustrated being cooped by myself in my little room," said Suzick, 99, who has lived at Brookdale for five years. "It feels like prison."

He remembered reading a book by the famous baseball catcher and manager Yogi Berra, and thinking, "If he can write a book, I can write a book."

"So I started writing the book," Suzick said. "Notes here, notes there."

He wrote about his grandparents, his English mother and Slovenian father, who met in Minnesota. He wrote about his time as a pilot in the Navy, flying admirals all over the world. He wrote about coaching football, about his children. And so much about his wife, Frances, who died 10 years ago. They were married for 65 years.

"I did it because of the circumstances here, being quarantined, not having anyone to talk to, being alone," Suzick said. "It solves a problem for me. I was driven because I just got so mixed up. I thought, I gotta do something."

COVID-19 has done more than put a lock on senior-citizens' doors in homes and living facilities all over the country. It has motivated them to learn new skills and finally take on long-thought-about projects.

Some say it has kept them going, and safe. Quarantined, but creative.

Not long after they closed the doors at Merrill Gardens in Burien in mid-February, Elaine Boswell was walking past the activity room and saw people making masks. She sat down to join them and, at last count, had made 50 of them in a batik fabric she loved.

"I got tired of that and now I'm quilting," said Boswell, who is 100. "I always want to have something to do. If I sit in a chair, I'll fall asleep. I need something for my brain to work on."

Like Suzick, Boswell is outgoing and thrives on the company of her fellow residents and her family. It's what has gotten her to 100, "and being born in the roaring '20s, I think, helped," she said. "God gave me a good start."

So the first month in quarantine was "a challenge. We can't go out, we can't go out for walks," she said. "Nowhere but the doctor."

Boswell was used to going to her daughter's house to play cards, or having people over to Merrill Gardens. No more.

"But we have happy hour every Friday online," she said "Have a glass of wine and talk for an hour."

On her 100th birthday a few months ago, one of the nurses came to the door and said she had a friend waiting for her in the lobby.

"I have my bathrobe on and my hair wasn't so great, but I went down there," she said, laughing a little.

Her neighbor, Terry Kriedeman, 87, spent the first several weeks missing card games with her four daughters and friends.

"It was very devastating for me," she said, adding that she tried to fill the hours alone by playing cards online, doing puzzles, playing Sudoku and reading.

Then Mother's Day came, and Kriedeman's daughter gave her a paint-by-number set. It was nicer than most, with gorgeous flowers and pretty colors. Neither of them had ever seen it before.

 

"She ordered it because she thought it would take up a lot of time," said Kriedeman, "and believe me, it does."

At first, Kriedeman couldn't see the numbers very well, so she put on a pair of magnifying glasses with lights on each side - and something clicked.

"I am absolutely loving it," Kriedeman said. "I am addicted to it."

Her daughter, Delilah Dale, couldn't believe it when Kriedeman held up a completed painting just days after she started.

"She went absolutely crazy working on them," Dale said. "She thought she would have the first one done by next Christmas, but she's done three since June."

Knowing that their parents are safe, and creative, brings families great comfort.

"It was a longtime concern for us, her finding things to do," Dale said of her mother. "This has been for her, a big challenge, but she sure met it. It makes me feel good to know that she has something she loves to do, and that we are sharing her success with it."

Suzick's daughter understands why her father has turned to writing.

"He's facing mortality and he wants us kids to remember everything about him," she said. "When we were growing up, the motto was, 'When the going gets tough, the tough get going.'"

And COVID-19 has been especially tough on their family.

On Suzick's 99th birthday, his family could do little more than sing to him from six feet away while he stood in the doorway of Brookdale.

It ended the drives he used to take with his son, Sada Simran Khalsa, to Alki Beach, where they would park the car, gaze out at the water and talk. The elder Suzick would talk about his time as a Navy pilot, his marriage, his time as the football coach at Renton High School. Khalsa, who changed his name when he converted to Sikhism, would talk about his yoga practice and his marriage to his high-school sweetheart.

Then, Brookdale went into lockdown and, five weeks after Sidick's birthday, Khalsa, 67, contracted COVID-19 and was hospitalized. He was taken off a ventilator just before Labor Day and is breathing on his own.

"It's been very difficult for us, and my brother, who my father really spent a lot of time with," said Suzick's daughter, Mary Anne. "He would talk with him every single day, and dad doesn't have him to talk to."

A month ago, Merrill Gardens started to let residents come downstairs for lunch, then, some time later, for dinner - but only two people to a table.

"We're a long way apart," Kriedeman said, "but it's fabulous. I am able to see old friends."

She is taking it all in stride, and is feeling fortunate that no one there has COVID-19, nor does anyone in her family.

"I am thankful for the things I have," Kriedeman said. "I am not concentrating on the things we can't do or don't have. This is life, now. And it's not going to change for a long time."

But she and those like her can change, one painting, one word, one mask at a time.

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