The fenced-in outdoor visiting area at the memory care facility—spare except for a few plants—was in the shade, and his wife was cold, the 87-year-old man said. Almost from the moment she was wheeled out, the listless woman draped in blankets, a surgical mask slipping from her face, wanted to be somewhere else.
“Take me home,” she pleaded.
And then, in 30 minutes, the visit he had so eagerly awaited was over, 15 minutes early. An aide wheeled her back inside. He exited through a gate in the fence, crying, his dream of connection once again swallowed by the chill and by the distance between them.
“The visitor must remain 6+ feet away from the resident,” the rules in effect during the mid-September visit read, “and must wear a face covering or mask at all times. Physical contact is not permitted by DPH mandate.”
When it comes to the extra dose of suffering the pandemic has inflicted on Alzheimer’s patients and those who love them, there is no shortage of tragic stories.
This one belongs to Donna and Nat Weiner. All he wants is permission to be with the woman who has been his sweetheart since she asked him to the Haverhill High School class of 1951 senior prom.
“I just want to hold her and kiss while she can still appreciate my presence,” he said. “Dementia patients have special needs, and the people quarantining them are basically torturing them.”
Donna, 86, is deteriorating rapidly, both physically and mentally, Nat said. She has dropped from 122 pounds to 106 pounds in 10 months, and time is not on their side.
The fight against COVID-19 ended the type of visits that used to be commonplace in memory care facilities — an adult child combing his frail mother’s hair, an aging wife coaxing her husband to eat some meatloaf from home, a grandchild pulling up Spotify and playing songs that might jog a memory.
Or, in the case of the Weiners at Brooksby Village, a continuing care retirement community in Peabody, enjoying old photographs of them and their three children and grandchildren on Salisbury Beach, where the couple met as preteens, hanging out with friends near the lifeguard stations.
Before COVID-19, Nat recalled, almost every late afternoon Donna would be looking for him to arrive. She’d be in the activities room, or in her own room, waiting for him to take her to supper. He was not only her companion, but her advocate, loving eyes who noticed when small things were amiss.
“She called me her ‘hero,’ ” he said.
Nat Weiner is used to having at least the illusion of control over his life. He was a lieutenant in the Air Force, earned an MBA from Harvard, and, later, by way of Suffolk University Law School at night, he became an attorney who represented, among other clients, New England Patriots shareholders who successfully sued the team in the 1980s.
And despite his own serious illnesses — he’s survived cancer and heart surgeries — he remains sharp, and an engaging conversationalist.
The issue of visitation in memory care facilities has gained even more urgency after an analysis of federal data by the Washington Post found about 13,200 more deaths than expected due to Alzheimer’s and dementia since March. “Pandemic isolation has killed thousands of Alzheimer’s patients while families watch from afar,” the headline reads.
As other parts of life reopen, the Alzheimer’s Association and other advocates are pushing for rapid testing that would, ideally, allow family visits of some sort to resume.
A Dutch study found that 26 nursing homes in the Netherlands were able to open for family visits — with strict protocols — without triggering new reported cases of COVID-19.
But closer to home, COVID-19 has torn through nursing homes. The tally of coronavirus deaths in Massachusetts long-term care facilities recently topped 6,000, according to a Globe Spotlight report, and is among the worst in the United States.
With two killers stalking frail elderly patients — isolation and the coronavirus — the pandemic is leaving families and facility operators with no good options.
“It’s a human tragedy,” said Michael Festa, state director of the AARP.
“A hug is as good a medical procedure as I can think of,” he said. “We cannot in any way minimize the critical value of that.”
But, he continued, “it cannot be defended within that inherently vulnerable environment. In the absence of this severe restriction, you could anchor a COVID outbreak that can get out of control rapidly.”
He said he thought of his 91-year-old mother, who is in a nursing home. “Imagine if I got a phone call that said, ‘Your mom got COVID because we let the lady who shares her room have her sister over, and she was asymptomatic.’ ”
At the end of September revised guidelines from the state’s Department of Public Health and the Executive Office of Elder Affairs went into effect. They relax the rules to allow indoor visits and brief physical contact, if both parties desire, with masks, and faces facing apart.
That still doesn’t get Nat Weiner what he wants, he said. He recalled the kind of visit that he emphasized does help Donna.
It was a special day in July, this past summer, when Brooksby staff arranged a surprise outdoor celebration to help the Weiners honor their 67th wedding anniversary. There was a cake and flowers, and a picture taken that day shows the pair snuggled on two chairs pushed together, his arm around her, her head resting on his shoulder.
“We were making out like we were in high school,” Nat recalled (a description Brooksby Village’s regional communications manager, Dani Baldassare, disputes).
A retired lawyer arguing the case of his life, he is beseeching Brooksby leaders for an exception that would allow him extended, regular, maskless, and intimate visits. (He emphasized to the Globe that he also wants such visits for others in need.)
“There has to be a better way,” he wrote to Brooksby Village’s director of continuing care on July 29.
He included an anniversary card he wrote Donna. “It seems I have loved you forever, and now, I love you more than ever.”
Recently he e-mailed the director again, referencing the Washington Post analysis of the pandemic’s toll on people suffering from dementia.
“You are suppose[d] to do no harm,” he wrote, “Damn it do that.”
In an e-mail to the Globe, Brooksby Village’s Baldassare said the company has provided “high quality, excellent care” for Donna Weiner, and has suggested other options for caring for her to her husband, including having her at home with support from professionals. That’s something Nat Weiner, who was her caretaker for years, says is no longer possible with her intense needs and his own ongoing health problems.
“While we recognize how disappointing it can be for loved ones to visit with restrictions in place,” Baldassare’s e-mail continued, “we have all seen the consequences when appropriate precautionary measures are not taken to help keep seniors safe from the virus.”
“That’s why our commitment to adhering to state guidelines has been unwavering. Brooksby Village remains vigilant, acting in the best interest of all who live, work and visit at our community, including Mr. and Mrs. Weiner.”
Brooksby Village has had one COVID-19 death of a resident in its continuing care facilities, which have about 200 residents, she said.
A recent afternoon found Nat in his one-bedroom independent living apartment — on the Brooksby campus, a five-minute walk from Donna, for all the good it does him. CNN was on, for companionship as much as for news.
He would be seeing Donna later, and thinking back to last week’s disastrous visit, Nat couldn’t honestly bring himself to say he was looking forward to the afternoon.
“We were meant for each other,” he choked out between tears.