GRAND FORKS -- On a recent Tuesday morning, Duane Kargel, 85, had a case of what he called the "poor me's." Determined not to let his spirits fall, he put himself together and walked every hallway in Tufte Manor, the assisted living facility where he and 62 other residents have been confined mostly to their rooms for more than a month.
"I'm doing well. I really am," he said. "I have these little activities that I keep up with, and we do get to go out – like this morning on my walk, I stopped at three of my friends' doors and just talked with them from the hallway, which was quite nice. And walking down the hall, we see someone 80 feet away and we wave and holler. It's like Old Home Week. Otherwise, under normal times, we probably wouldn't even talk to each other."
Senior living facilities across the state and region have closed their doors to the public in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a respiratory disease that can be particularly dangerous to people older than 60. Valley Senior Living, which operates three facilities in Grand Forks including Tufte Manor, suspended all visitation except for window visitation in compliance with Gov. Doug Burgum's April 6 executive order. They also suspended all group activities and meals within the facilities. Residents are allowed to leave for end-of-life and essential doctor's appointments, but other than that, if a resident leaves the facility, they are considered discharged, said Valley Senior Living CEO Garth Rydland. The North Dakota Department of Health reported Tufte Manor's first and only positive case of COVID-19 on April 26.
Rydland said such drastic measures are necessary to protect some of Grand Forks' most vulnerable residents – but the isolation can take its toll.
"I think everybody has seen a decrease in their quality of life that lives with us," Rydland said. "I've heard some people have called our long-term care, and there have been a number of statements that, 'If this is how I'm going to have to live, I would rather die.' And I certainly understand that. It's really up to us as a society to minimize the spread so that our residents' lives can go back to something that looks a little bit more like normal."
A new routine
Kargel said that, though the lockdown has changed his schedule dramatically, he fell into a new routine quickly. His day usually starts at 6:30 a.m., when he wakes up and gets ready for the day. A nurse usually delivers breakfast around 8 a.m., and, after eating, he generally goes back to bed. He rises for good around 9 a.m. and spends his morning tidying and cleaning his home. Around 11 a.m., he sits down at his computer and begins "taking care of business" – namely, keeping in touch with people, he said. After that, he will enjoy a book or a movie, then take his afternoon walk around 2:30 p.m., when he visits the doors of friends and stops by the front desk to see if there's any news. Nurses stop by frequently to check temperatures and oxygen levels, and a nurse brings his dinner by around 5 p.m. He spends the rest of the evening quietly before going to bed around 8:30 p.m.
Still, he said, the isolation can be frustrating. After about a week into it, he figured he had watched every cowboy movie on Netflix, according to his daughter, Kim Tweten, of Climax, Minn. He missed small comforts, such as visiting his family and ordering a pizza. He had to put down his long-time pet, a cat named Inky, in February, just as the pandemic began to escalate in the United States. He's tried to foster a new cat since then, but has been unable to do so. Instead, he's put his time into taking care of Willy, a ficus tree his neighbor gave him after Inky died.
"He's in a very sunshiney spot in my room, and I water him once a week. I talk to him every night, I wiggle his leaves, I compliment him on what a great tree he is," Kargel said with a laugh. "He's my new pet. He helps keep my sanity."
But unable to stay as active as previously, Kargel said he's seen his strength deteriorate quickly. He now has a CNA make his bed for him and struggles to walk without his walker. It slows him down, but doesn't stop him – but Rydland said possible physical and psychological deterioration in their residents is something Valley Senior Living staff is discussing and trying to prevent every day during the lockdown.
Valley Senior Living staff strive to help residents find the bright spots in the situation. That could mean virtual dance-offs between different neighborhoods or coordinated dress-up days during National Nursing Home Week. Kargel said staff has done an excellent job at keeping residents healthy and comfortable – but he said his biggest bright spot is his pen pals.
On April 10, Tweten posted on Facebook that her father was going stir-crazy in Tufte Manor, asking her friends and friends of friends to send him letters whether they knew him personally or not.
Since then, Kargel said he has received 16 letters from across the country, including from Chicago, New Jersey and Los Angeles. He described his pen pals fondly – an aspiring actress from Ventura, Calif., a pair of young sisters from Nielsville, Minn., a lawyer from New Jersey and more than one old friend who Kargel had lost touch with long ago.
And for others, the bright spot in their day is Kargel.
"I've known Duane for a decade, and he always makes other people's days brighter," Rydland said. "He was the person who gave me my quote about how reopening some states and not others is like having a peeing zone in the pool – he's always got a lot of one-liners."
Kargel's thoughts on reopening states too quickly is something he's talked about often, he said. He worries that a wide attempt to return to normal too hastily could have devastating consequences, especially for those in assisted living facilities, which will be among the last places in the state to be released from restrictions under the governor's reopening plan.
"I really believe that this is going to get worse before it ever gets better," Kargel said. "This opening up of businesses is a drastic danger, and we're already starting to see illnesses where they weren't before. So we're lucky back here in North Dakota, so far ... so I think we'll just keep bearing up here. (Valley Senior Living) leadership is doing a good job, so I can't complain there, but I don't think this is going to end as quickly as they say. I really don't."