The power of the pen

Evelyn Graves (centre) turned to writing during the pandemic, creating a musical about her long-term care experiences. Photo: Submitted

In the loneliest days of the pandemic, Dartmouth long-term care resident Evelyn Graves finds comfort in her writing, documenting her experiences in a recent musical

For long-term care residents like Oakwood Terrace‘s Evelyn Graves, the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic were a frightening time of isolation and uncertainty.

“Everyone had the same fears because we did not know what was ahead for any of us,” she says. “Of course, we couldn’t have family in. We did have telephones, thank goodness, that we could talk to them, but nobody could come in for a long time. What a relief it was when we finally could have our caregiver come in to see us. It’s very scary to know, at our ages, because we’re all very senior here and know that anything could happen, that we might be here and not be able to say that our life might be ended … It was just a scary thing to think about.”

Graves feels fortunate, in contrast with what others endured in long-care homes. During the pandemic, her older sister, Jeanette, who doesn’t hear well, sat alone in her room in isolation as the home she was living in, New Brunswick, had no programs to stimulate her.

“She’s has lost touch with the world,” she says. “I talked to her every day and tried to fill her in with things going on, but she’s not as interested maybe as I would like to see her.”

Meanwhile her son Cary is in a long-term care home in Halifax that has lots of staff, but no recreation director. That means fewer activities to occupy his time. Being one of the youngest at home also is a disadvantage also, as available activities are aimed at older residents.

At Oakwood Terrace, workers looked for ways to keep residents from feeling lonely. Recreation director Chantal Beaulieu says residents learned how to video chat to stay connected to family. Residents learned how to use social media to post photos and upload fun, creative videos on YouTube.

In addition to loneliness, fear loomed.

“I remember, the first day we had to come to work and wear masks,” she says. “I remember having dreams at night, thinking they’re going to be scared of me like they can’t see my smile, they can’t see my expression, and we’ll be missing a lot of the form of communication that, you know, helps register calmness and safety. And it was really interesting … I walked around the other units, where people were more cognitively aware of what was happening, and I could see the fear in their eyes … I could see it registered in their faces.”

And the volunteers who provide recreation, personal-support, and spiritual programs suddenly had to stop coming, stretching Beaulieu and the other workers further as they tried to meet the needs of the home’s 111 residents.

“I had to accept that I can’t meet everybody’s needs,” she says. “We had volunteers that did different roles, some for that one-on-one support, some for entertainment, for assisting them to appointments. Some that didn’t have family, we had assigned volunteers that would just come in and be that family, like remembering birthdays and holidays. Pre-pandemic, we relied heavily on our volunteers to help with the mental health issues, and when they were removed from the facility, and then the families as well, you can imagine how that need fell upon our shoulders.”

The pandemic exposed the tightness of staffing levels, and how that affects people. Beaulieu also says it also demonstrated that mental health care is just as critical as physical care.

“There’s not a perfect system, and there’s a lot of flaws that have to be fixed,” she says. “When I looked at stories of other homes and what they were being offered for that emotional support, we had a lot more support being offered to us here.”

Graves also fell back on her own coping mechanisms to maintain her mental health. Some of those included continuing her passion for knitting and crocheting so she could create poppies for Oakwood Terrace’s Remembrance Day display or donate her finished products for sales. She also coloured birthday cards for her family.

“When your hands are busy, your mind is busy,” she says, adding that writing was her main outlet. “I’ve written all my life; everywhere I go, or any adventures I have, I have to write about it. When I came in here (Oakwood), this was another big adventure for me, and … I had to put it down on paper. I would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night with a thought, and I would have to get up and write it because once you let that go, you can’t get it back.”

Graves collected a set of writings about her experiences living in long-term care. In those excerpts, she wrote about how fortunate she was during the pandemic to be at a place where people helped one another.

Graves narrates “Reflections From a Voice in a Nursing Home.”

Beaulieu saw these excerpts and came up with the idea to stage a musical called Reflections From a Voice in a Nursing Home — A Musical Journey About the Pandemic. Bedford Baptist Church hosted the show in October, with Graves narrating, joined by five musicians and four dancers.

“During the pandemic, nursing homes were at the forefront of news headlines with mostly negative stories,” Beaulieu says. “Thankfully, this is a positive story about long-term care that also shows how some residents found ways to cope during the challenges of a lockdown and restrictions. It was interesting that she didn’t allow those restrictions, lockdowns, and isolation to make her feel depressed and give up on life. She was motivated to find a new way to contribute.”

The music is chosen from Oakwood’s playlist of uplifting tunes.

“The show starts with a storm — those fears and anxieties — and then it takes us into how we coped through it … by finding joy, by finding love, and we coped by finding space,” Beaulieu says. “Then we end it with every storm; there’s sunshine, the sun always comes out after the storm clouds are over. She takes us on what I call the pandemic journey because I think we all walk through this in different ways in our own lives.”

Ultimately, Beaulieu hopes learning about Graves’s experiences will encourage others.

“I hope that it’ll inspire them also to find new ways of coping,” she says. “I think Evelyn’s life is a testimony to us all that we don’t have to give up when it’s when there are hard times like we can find new ways to rebrand ourselves, or to grow or to find new aspirations. She’s inspiring, and I think we all need to adapt to that. I hope that her life inspires us all to be our best self; wonderful courage and strength.”

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