Sonya Kelly had been planning to drive down from Omaha that Saturday in March to visit her 88-year-old mother at Sumner Place in Lincoln — one of her regular weekend visits for the past five years.
But the day got away from her and she decided to go Sunday instead.
Then Marge Kelly’s daughter checked her email and found a message from the nursing home.
“It said we have to close to visitors until further notice,” the daughter said last week. “And until further notice sounded like a long time.”
Six months later, that long time is still here. The most vulnerable among us, our elders, still quarantined to protect them from COVID-19.
“It was like a door slammed shut,” Sonya said. “It has been so isolating.”
The Kelly family hobbled along with phone calls to Mom for those first months. But that was hard, too. Marge didn’t have a phone in her room so she needed to get out to the nursing station.
It took time and tied up the line.
Then along came the Dreamweaver Foundation with a dream come true. Facebook Portals.
Magical 8-by-10-inch screens.
Mom’s face on Sonya’s screen. Sonya’s face on Marge’s.
Sumner Place received 30 of the $179 screens, enough for every resident who wanted one, part of a pilot program in June.
She remembers watching her mom’s face on the screen that first time, looking like her mom.
“It’s been fantastic,” Sonya said. “You just want to see them and hear them and know they are fine.”
Marge is a longtime widow and a retired teacher. She loves kids. Loves the activities at Sumner Place. Bingo. Playing cards. Cooking. Rides in the van. Her family’s visits.
Now she’s stuck in her room — solitary confinement, she calls it — but the portal lets her see out.
It’s easy. Sonya calls her on Facebook Messenger and Marge answers. The smart camera on the portal frames her face — no forehead shots or up-the-nose views — and the subwoofer and speakers on the portal’s back make the sound crystal clear.
Her five kids can walk around their houses with their own phones or tablets, showing Mom around.
“I show her my flowers, show her the cat,” Sonya said. “I’ve been making masks so I show her the mess up in my sewing room.”
I hopped on to say hello last week, and saw Marge in her room, the paper flowers over her bed, the row of photos on the shelf.
Monika Gall, Sumner Place’s life enrichment coordinator, was there, too, her voice in the background extolling the portal’s virtues.
“On the portal you can see pictures,” Gall said. “Or listen to music or play games. It kind of is entertainment for her.”
The portals come equipped with iHeartRadio and software that allows photos downloaded by family members to scroll across the screen.
“It does my heart good to see her looking and sounding good when I am so concerned about her physical and mental health,” Sonya wrote in a thank you letter to the foundation. “She said it does her heart good to see and hear me.”
The Dreamweaver Foundation is based in Omaha.
It’s a Make-a-Wish for seniors with terminal illnesses. Last year, the nonprofit granted 150 wishes, the most since they began in 2012, said Cheri Mastny, executive director.
The wishes can be anything a senior wants. Like boxes of Popsicles for a woman who loved grape Popsicles but always found the box in her nursing home’s freezer out of her favorite flavor.
Like trips to Broadway shows or a photo op with Mario Andretti in his race car or a chance to tour the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
But the No. 1 wish is always the same: To spend time with family.
“Family pictures, family reunions, family dinners,” Mastny said. “To go somewhere with their family.”
In the first months of 2020, the foundation was rolling out wishes. On track to exceed 2019’s total in the 15-county area surrounding Omaha, where the Dreamweaver Foundation’s founders live.
“Then the pandemic hit and there were no experiences for them to have," Mastny said.
The organization hit pause. When it realized COVID-19 wasn’t going away and that the people it served were affected more than almost anyone else, the foundation started pondering ways they could still help.
It's called the Connecting Hope Campaign.
Since that pilot program at Sumner Place in June, the organization has granted 375 Facebook Portals to seniors across Southeast Nebraska and western Iowa.
The foundation hopes to give more.
“I don’t think we had any idea the impact would be as great as it is,” Mastny said. “People are seeing their great-grandchildren for the first time.”
In one care facility, a group that ate lunch together every day are dialing up their portals and eating together virtually.
Seniors are livestreaming church on their portals.
Isolation is hard on our elders. Loneliness affects them physically, Mastny said. She compared the toll on their bodies to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
And she sees those effects deepening as the holidays approach. No trick-or-treaters. No Thanksgiving dinners at home. No carolers in the common room.
“Hopefully, being able to connect virtually will help.”
Marge Kelly hates being in her room all day. She keeps busy with crossword puzzles, word searches, TV.
Then her portal rings and she sees the face of someone she loves.
“I see her face kind of light up,” Gall says. “It makes her smile.”
Creating community during COVID
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On Twitter @TheRealCLK