- Title: Married for 50 years, a couple are separated by the coronavirus
- Date: 14th April 2020
- Summary: INTERNET (APRIL 13, 2020) (REUTERS VIA SKYPE) (SOUNDBITE) (English) HOWARD SMITH, ARTIST AND HUSBAND OF LOIS KITTSON, SAYING: "I can't delude myself into thinking that I can do anything for Lois right now. I basically can't. I've been cut off. It's OK. There's a moat, and though I'm trying to, I mean, I'm about to say something a little bit contradictory, I'm trying to be a little self-sufficient where I'm not dependent on seeing her because I realize that that may be altered forever."
- Keywords: Alzheimer's Disease Howard Smith Lois Kittson New Paltz dementia isolation marriage nursing home
- Reuters ID: LVA007C9BRY2V
- Location: NEW PALTZ, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES / INTERNET / UNKNOWN LOCATION
- City: NEW PALTZ, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES / INTERNET / UNKNOWN LOCATION
- Country: USA
- Duration: 00:00:33
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: This is a love story. It began 50 years ago over an apple strudel in Paris, but Howard Smith says he has no time for romantic notions about the past. Right now he's worried about how the story will end.
Howard, an abstract artist, is a man who spends much of his life focusing on small details and routines. His monochrome-like palettes often consist of thousands of repetitive brush strokes, and critics have seen his work as a meticulous attempt to control chaos. Today, Howard knows exactly how far he is from his wife, Lois: 23.7 miles. And he hasn't seen her for more than a month.
Lois Kittson has late-stage Alzheimer's disease. Six days a week for the past five years, Howard has made the 40-minute drive to visit Lois at the New Paltz Center nursing home in the Hudson River Valley north of New York City.
They've been separated since New York became the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic in America. On March 11, the nursing home suspended all visitation to protect the residents. On March 20, Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered people statewide to shelter in place.
Howard, 76, understands the need to flatten the curve, but he feels like Lois' life may depend on his visits. He wants to know how long the pandemic will keep him from his wife, and he worries about everyone else who is enduring similar separations. For thousands of family members locked out of nursing homes worldwide - some of them unable to obtain regular updates from staff inside - the fate of residents can seem suspended between life and death.
"There's nothing right now," said Howard, whose grandmother died in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 shortly after giving birth to his mother. That haunts him, particularly now. "My reassurance comes from the occasional text from an aide. I mean, I haven't had anything since Friday. And all I need to know. All I really wish to know is that she's okay. As far as me and where I am, I'm a little bit at sea."
Lois, 77, can no longer speak and rarely opens her eyes. She can't remember the moments that make up half a century of her life with Howard.
Howard remembers them. He talks about the moment they met at a Paris art gallery in January 1970 as if 50 minutes had passed, not 50 years. He remembers how their friendship turned into something more the night they baked an apple strudel at his place in the 13th arrondissement. Concocting and stretching the dough took hours. By the time it came out of the oven, the Paris Metro was closed. Lois spent the night. Then she moved in.
He remembers how Lois, an accomplished artisan herself, always pledged to work straight jobs so that Howard could focus on his artwork. She's been a cook, a substitute schoolteacher, a drug and alcohol counselor, a nurse's aide, a sculpture patina expert.
"She would always be interested, very interested in whatever she'd get interested in. And be thorough and proficient about it," said Howard, who would gain renown as a member of New York's Radical Painting Group. "She would think nothing of working on something for days. And she did this very fine granulation. She worked only with 18 and 20 carat, 22-carat gold. She would start from just a bar and melt down and make her own amalgam."
He remembers the day that Lois, who'd grown up in rural northern British Columbia, came home from work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan and told Howard that she wanted to grow potatoes. So they moved upstate, to a dilapidated pogo-stick factory.
And he remembers how her memory started to fade: slowly at first, until one day when she asked him, "Who are you?" as he helped her in the bathroom.
For many of us, perhaps our greatest anxiety during this crisis is that something will happen to our elderly loved ones - whether they are infected with the virus or not - and we will be powerless to get to them with communities and medical facilities in lockdown. And for many, it goes even deeper than that, to the fear of dying alone, or not being able to say goodbye to those who will.
In a White House briefing last Tuesday, the doctors leading the Trump administration's pandemic response estimated that, in a worst-case scenario, the national death toll could reach as high as 240,000 people; more recent models have suggested it could be far lower. By Thursday, the death toll in New York State had risen to more than 7,000.
The U.S. epidemic began with heart-rending scenes at a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington. At least three dozen residents died in isolation from their relatives as the virus spread like brushfire. Family members could only peer in through the windows. In upstate New York, Lois' room has no windows facing outside.
Across the United States, nursing homes - some 15,000 of them, with around 1.5 million residents - are in quarantine. Banning visitors is meant to keep the virus out, but staff members still come and go. The same shortages of protective gear putting hospital workers at risk affects nursing home staff. Many have been calling in sick themselves.
Nursing homes, like cruise ships, have emerged as brutally efficient incubators for the virus, which is especially deadly for the elderly. As of April 9, there have been more than 4,000 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus spread among 312 of New York State's 613 nursing homes, and 1,231 virus-related deaths, state health data showed.
The virus has also ravaged elder-care facilities across Europe. In Italy, Reuters reported that official death tolls have often excluded the many nursing home patients who are dying.
Howard is unaware of any COVID-19 cases at Lois' nursing home; the home's administrator confirmed this last week.
Howard is preparing mentally for bad news, though. But nothing can change they life the pair led together.
"I'm not a nostalgic type. It's more a matter of, the breadth of the experience. And when you live with somebody a very long time or you get to know you're close with them, it's little things sometimes that matter much more than big things. So, you know, I don't think, oh, that wonderful meal we had in the restaurant. I think eating a hard boiled egg together, having a cup of coffee together is just as meaningful. It's a matter of being together and sharing experience."
(Production by: Dan Fastenberg)
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