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'Their Spirits Are Brightened': Life Slowly Returns To Normal In Charlotte-Area Nursing Homes

Nancy Miller, who lives at the South Charlotte nursing home Elmcroft at Little Avenue, leads some of her fellow residents in a drumming exercise.
Claire Donnelly
Nancy Miller, who lives at the south Charlotte nursing home Elmcroft at Little Avenue, leads some of her fellow residents in a drumming exercise.

At 11 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, a group of senior citizens was feeling lucky.

“Round and round the numbers go. The numbers she lets out, nobody knows!” Janet Woodman shouted as she cranked the handle of a bingo hopper.

Woodman is the activity director at The Addison of Indian Trail, a nursing home about 30 minutes southeast of Charlotte. She led a group of seven residents through a bingo game — as she does three times per week, always at 11 a.m.

But bingo at The Addison has looked slightly different over the past year. Instead of crowding around tables, the residents sit in the doorways of their rooms on folding chairs.

“I sit in the middle of the hallway and use the loudest voice I can,” Woodman said. “Actually, it’s a pretty good sound. It echoes. So we don’t have a problem too much with hearing the numbers.”

According to Woodman, hallway bingo is one of her residents’ favorite pastimes. She came up with the twist at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, when she and nursing home staff across the Charlotte region had to switch almost all of the usual activities.

No more card games like Uno or Apples to Apples. No more trips to restaurants or department stores. Birthday parties and lectures were moved to the hallways. During the holidays, Christmas carolers sang to residents through open front doors.

“We wore the tires off the bus going and doing things: going to festivals ... going to the aquarium, lots of things,” said Billie Jean Whary, an 83-year-old resident of Elmcroft at Little Avenue, a nursing home in south Charlotte. “When the pandemic came (that) stopped dead. And we were basically in our rooms. That’s all you could do.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those 65 and older and those living in congregate living facilities like nursing homes have been particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Of the nearly 540,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19 in the United States as of April 7, 81% were people who were 65 and older, and 20% were people who lived in nursing homes or long-term care facilities.

So, as the virus spread, nursing homes went on lockdown. Families and friends weren’t allowed to visit their loved ones in person. They had to keep in touch through video calls or peering through windows. Even residents were kept apart from one another, confined to their rooms.

Nursing home administrators worried about their residents. Change is often confusing and difficult for people with diseases like Alzheimer's that affect memory. Plus, they were isolated and lonely.

Arzu Uranli, the activity director at Elmcroft at Little Avenue, said her 35 residents told her constantly how badly they wanted to see and talk to each other up close.

“That (connection) was missing,” Uranli said. “It’s a big hole I couldn’t fill by myself. It was the saddest time for them. Each day they were asking ‘When? When?’”

Slowly — and with some stops and starts because of virus outbreaks — Uranli started to add back in smaller group activities. One big hit has been a drum circle led by one of Elmcroft’s residents, Nancy Miller.

On a recent afternoon, a small group of residents sat in a circle of folding chairs in the nursing home courtyard to give a demonstration, balancing various drums on their knees.

“I eat peanut butter every day,” they chanted, using their hands or wooden sticks to tap in time with the words. One resident gently shook a maraca.

“(The drumming) was an instant joy because we loved hitting on things anyway,” Whary said, chuckling. “Nancy’s been fun because she would play the piano and we’d sing. None of us are trained to sing so you can imagine what it sounded like: five cats being strangled.”

A group of residents gather in the courtyard at Elmcroft at Little Avenue to demonstrate one of the nursing home's small group activities--a drum circle.
Claire Donnelly
A group of residents gather in the courtyard at Elmcroft at Little Avenue to demonstrate one of the nursing home's small group activities--a drum circle.

Now that many residents are vaccinated, life has continued to inch toward normal inside nursing homes. In North Carolina, roughly 73% of people ages 65 and older have been at least partially vaccinated, according to state health department numbers. Family and friends can visit loved ones in person and indoors in most cases under recently relaxed state guidelines. In Mecklenburg County, officials reported just one new death from the coronavirus in nursing homes during March.

At Elmcroft at Little Avenue, 99% of residents have been vaccinated, according to executive director Tara Benson.

“Oh, I can see definitely their spirits are brightened,” Benson said. “People who really found comfort in their rooms, it’s much easier to coax them out. And it’s great to see that they’re back to being the social person that we knew them to be.”

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Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literature and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. Reach her at cdonnelly@wfae.org or on Twitter @donnellyclairee.