“The whole atmosphere at Summit has changed,” Co Vanderlaan says of his retirement home, now that its residents have received the COVID-19 vaccine. He and his wife Alice echo the feelings of many. “We are so relieved. So thankful. So excited. Maybe soon we can see our grandchildren. We’ve had two great-grandchildren born during the pandemic and we’ve only seen them through the window.”
Early in the pandemic, Summit Village was locked down following one case of COVID-19. The six individuals who had been in contact with that person were immediately quarantined. Since then, there have been no more cases. “We are so thankful we could keep the virus out,” Vanderlaan says. But uncertainty and stress remained for residents, who had questions such as: When will I be able to get the vaccine? Where will I need to go? How will I get there? How will I register?
“Uncertain Times,” written by Elise Stolte, was the headline on the front page of the Edmonton Journal on February 5. The article focused on how the COVID-19 vaccine shortage, together with a lack of information about Alberta’s vaccine plan and confusion about eligibility rules, had created stress and anxiety among seniors. It featured Summit Village, an independent-living residence for those age 55 and over, including an interview with Co Vanderlaan, current president of the co-op association. It is estimated that around 85 percent of the 125 tenants living at Summit Village are Christian, 30 percent of them Christian Reformed.
The situation changed less than a month later. Vaccinations would not be provided on site but on the morning of February 24, all Albertans age 75 and older were able to book appointments – online and by phone – at designated clinics. It was stressful for those who lacked computer skills (and perhaps even the computer) to book online. Vanderlaan and other co-op Board members helped, and several got help from their children. Initially, phone lines were jammed and the provincial website kept crashing as the COVID-19 vaccination booking system became overwhelmed. By the next day, however, most were able to get an appointment. The issue around transportation was solved when pharmacies were given permission to provide the vaccine. A number of residents cancelled their previous bookings and simply walked across the street to the Safeway pharmacy.
For retired Christian Reformed Church (CRC) pastor Gordon Pols and his wife Ann, who also live at Summit Village, “This COVID time has been a lonely time. Other than picking up a few groceries, we have not been out of our suite! About two weeks ago we got our first vaccine shots; the second [will be] on April 19.” Like the Pols, most seniors look ahead to relief from isolation and to the day when they can visit with friends and family again. At the time of this writing, Alberta still does not allow any indoor gatherings of any size and Summit Village still does not allow visitors.
A spiritual toll
“It cannot be understated how difficult the distance and separation from their loved ones has been on our residents,” said Darren Sinke, Executive Director of Emmanuel Home, a supportive Christian community in northeast Edmonton offering both independent and assisted living for approximately 260 seniors. “The lack of socializing and activities at Emmanuel Home, the shorter and darker winter days, and the limitations on regular and frequent corporate worship only add to the difficulty of managing this pandemic,” he explained. “There has definitely been an emotional and spiritual toll. But, with spring on its way and the vaccine being rolled out, there is also a renewed sense of seeing that light at the end of the tunnel in terms of getting back to normal.”
There have been a few cases of COVID-19 in Emmanuel Home over the past three months but each time, limitations were able to be placed on the positive cases and exposures, thanks to rigorous protocols and hard work by both residents and staff. “We have seen first-hand how easily the virus can spread but, with thanks to the Lord, we have not lost any residents,” said Sinke. On March 5, Emmanuel Home was able to lift its “outbreak” status.
At the time of writing, almost half of Emmanuel Home’s staff and over 95 percent of its residents had received their second dose of the vaccine. “There was definitely a sense of hope and relief when the vaccine was made available,” said Sinke, “and it was fun to see the smiles when the Alberta Health Services team showed up on site to administer the vaccine.”
Sini Den Otter, 85, lives independently in an apartment at Emmanuel Home. “I am relieved to have received two shots of the Pfizer vaccine,” she said. “The vaccine has been received with gladness. There is a sense of hope and relief as the weather lifts our spirits.”
On the other side of ‘outbreak’
Holland Christian Homes in Brampton, Ontario is a community of over a thousand Christian seniors living in six independent living apartment towers and two long-term care facilities. The care homes were particularly hard hit this past year. Sadly, since the beginning of the pandemic, 44 people have died of COVID-19 – 14 in Grace Manor and 30 in Faith Manor, the long-term care homes. At the time of this writing, precautions remain in place. Only essential visitors are welcome in the towers and essential visitors showing negative COVID tests can enter the Manors, which are currently COVID-free.
Pastor Richard Bodini from Heritage Fellowship CRC serves as chaplain at Holland Christian Homes. “People are anxious and want the vaccine so that they can begin to return to some normal activities like visiting one another, to encourage and support one another as neighbours and as a church,” he said.
By February 12, about 98 percent of the residents in both Faith and Grace Manor had received both doses of the vaccine. A very high percentage of the staff connected to both homes also received the vaccine, including Bodini. An update on March 23 revealed that almost 650 first vaccines had also been given to tenants in the towers.
Bodini pointed out that it is not only those receiving the vaccine who are grateful. “Family members of residents in Faith and Grace Manors were extremely thankful that their loved ones had received the vaccine. I spoke to the son of a Faith Manor resident. He was so happy his dad received the vaccine and also that he is able to go in to visit with dad once again because Faith Manor is out of outbreak. The last time he saw his dad was in late October.”
Bodini shared another story of a couple who also hadn’t been together since October. “She lives in one of the towers while her spouse, a retired CRC pastor, lives in Faith Manor. Each day she would go outside his window and wave to him. He would hold up a sign in the shape of a heart that he had coloured with a volunteer that said, ‘I love you.’ I helped facilitate a few video calls for them. She is very grateful her husband could receive the vaccine. Because the outbreak is over, she can once again go inside to visit. They are nearing their 70th wedding anniversary.”
As of today, Canada’s total caseload of COVID-19 is getting close to one million and the death toll close to 23,000. It’s been an especially tough year for seniors.
“Ultimately, though,” as Emmanuel Home’s Darren Sinke reminds us, “We know that our hope comes from the Lord. We continue to look to him to sustain us, both individually and as a community.”