NEW LONDON, Minn. — On a typical day — not that there is one anymore since the coronavirus pandemic upended her already busy life — Heather Westberg King attempts a magic act of being in two places at the same time.
After the 45-year-old mother of three scrambles to prevent a child’s meltdown during a distance learning crisis, she runs across her yard in New London, Minn., to her parents’ house – built this year so King could keep a close eye on their failing health after COVID elevated health concerns even more.
She grabs the family’s new puppy, George, which her mother, Linda Westberg, simply adores, especially now that Alzheimer’s is seeping into her life.
With kids, dog and parents in tow, King gradually gets everyone into the car to take her dad, Mike, to the doctor for a three-times-a-week appointment in Willmar. She takes him to Mayo Clinic in Rochester every other week for two days.
“Sound like chaos?” King asks.
It’s a rhetorical question.
But the chaos is overtaken by something more powerful: love and peace of mind.
Until this fall, King’s parents lived in the country. Even though it took King only about 15 minutes to drive there, it was too long and too far when frequent emergencies arose with her parents while she was also needed by her kids.
It was “such a relief and peace of mind” after her parents moved next door at the end of October, she said. Now it takes about 15 seconds to go from her kids in her kitchen to her parents in their kitchen.
But having her fingers on the pulse of her 70-year-old mom and 72-year-old dad and her 15-,13- and 9-year-old kids is exhausting.
Like many American women faced with new layers of full-time COVID-related family challenges who realize there are actually only 24 hours in a day, King quit her job this summer.
She’s not alone. The U.S. Labor Department says women are leaving the workforce at four times the rate of men in 2020. In September alone 865,000 women left their jobs compared to 216,000 men.
King said her dad was “mortified” that she quit her job to take care of them and he feels guilty for adding stress to his daughter. Westberg thought he’d be the one taking care of his wife of 50 years as her Alzheimer’s progressed. That was until he contracted graft vs. host disease after getting a successful stem cell transplant to fight leukemia. It’s now difficult for him to walk and impossible for him to drive.
“I don’t know what I’d do without her,” said Westberg, giving his daughter a squeeze.
Her dad hadn’t been in the habit of asking for and accepting help, said King, but there was no choice. The two households now share meals together, play games, put puzzles together and talk about things “that draw us closer together” because they are together every day, said King, calling it “an honor” to care for her parents.
But it’s not all paradise. King, who got married in May on the Kandiyohi County courthouse lawn after COVID got in the way of other plans, has her own health issues. And her kids are, quite frankly, sick of each other and missing school and their friends.
King said people like her who are in the “sandwich generation” can’t beat themselves up when they can’t be everything to everyone.
“What we are able to give, has to be enough,” she said.
She knows she can’t do it by herself and has learned to ask for socially-distanced help from friends and family during the pandemic.
“I can’t do it all and do it well, with taking care of them, my kids, husband and life,” she said. “This whole world is crashing down on me.”
King said she’s learned not to worry about what she can’t control.
“We are all so hard on ourselves about what we can give to our family,” she said. “This last year has been a lesson that it’s enough just to be loving.”
Missing the hugs
Living next door to her aging mother isn’t an option for Tami Good.
She drives from her home in West Fargo, N.D., to visit her mom 100 miles away at the Ave Maria Village nursing home in Jamestown, N.D., several times a month. Lately it’s a short visit on opposite sides of a glass door.
Good made the drive Nov. 24, when her mother, Darlene Windingland, turned 80.
“Goodbye, Mama,” Good said, before turning back to the phone for an interview.
Doing video chats with her mom isn’t feasible so Good makes the drive “for the five minutes just to see her through the doorway,” she said. “Me and my mom are really close.”
With face-to-face visits off-limits at nearly all nursing homes, families are finding creative ways to stay connected, said Tim Burchill, CEO of Ave Maria Village.
Phone calls, video chats and staff-led activities help, but not being able to touch and talk with family in person has been difficult.
Good said her mother is “very huggy” and will hold people in a “death grip” given the chance.
Not being able to hug her mother or hold her hand is “worse than you can imagine,” said Good. “It’s rough.”
Most of the residents understand they can’t see people they love because of the coronavirus and have adapted better than he expected, but Burchill said some are “melancholy” and some have “given up” because of loneliness.
“It’s heartbreaking,” he said.
Care packages, decorations and flowers sent to residents are “real day-brighteners,” said Burchill. “Those little things mean so much.”
Since 2008, Burchill has strapped on his accordion every other Friday afternoon to lead a singalong and tell corny jokes during “happy hour” with Ave Maria residents while they drInk a glass of beer or wine or whiskey sour in the fellowship hall. He hasn’t been able to hold court since COVID prohibited group gatherings.
He misses that connection of sharing music and humor with the residents and they miss the light-hearted fun. Burchill has wandered the halls a few times to play accordion and sing to residents, but it’s not the same. Happy hour will eventually return when COVID goes away, he said.
As the music coordinator for Carris Health Rice Hospice in Willmar, Donna Jo Kopitzke said music is a powerful force to create and revive memories.
“Musical memories are deeply rooted memories,” she said. Sharing a favorite song with someone “can be so helpful and so healing.”
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Before COVID, Kopitzke would play guitar and sing songs while sitting next to people in hospice, and their families who were preparing to say goodbye to loved ones.
During COVID, Kopitzke sang while wearing a mask and goggles, sang while doing outdoor and window visits and sang during video visits before retiring Dec. 23 to focus on music ministry with her husband, a Lutheran pastor.
Kopitzke encourages families to do what it takes to bring music to each other, especially at Christmas, even if it’s listening to a song together on the phone.
“Making those musical connections and memories are still so powerful,” she said. “You have to be really creative now to do whatever you can.”
Connecting the tribal family
With activity centers closed down because of COVID, maintaining community connections among members of the tight-knit Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribe — where everyone is considered family whether they’re related or not — has been challenging.
But Courtney Clark, deputy director of emergency management for the tribe, said a combination of grants, partnerships with Internet providers and old-fashioned hard work where everyone looks out for each other, has helped tribal members receive vital information about COVID and news about life happening in their community.
Cell coverage and Internet service is fairly good on the Lake Traverse Reservation, which includes five counties in South Dakota and two counties in North Dakota. But Clark, who lives in Waubay, S.D., said having technology available doesn’t mean people are automatically connected.
After the South Dakota Department of Health had difficulty getting in touch with people who tested positive for COVID, it was revealed that some didn’t have minutes left on their cell phones or didn’t even have a phone. The tribe purchased 10 phones that are used by COVID-positive individuals during crucial contact times. The phones are then sanitized and handed off to others to use.
Reading local newspapers, tribal newsletters and listening to the radio is more popular than social media among elders who don’t have the Internet or aren’t comfortable using it, Clark said.
Tribal health leaders use those traditional avenues to keep the community connected and educated about COVID, including advice about limiting travel and being careful during Christmas.
Clark and her husband, who is a tribal policeman, and their 6-year-old son have kept mostly to themselves during the pandemic. Her husband stays connected to his sister, who lives about 20 miles away, by playing online games together. Clark said she talks every day to her mother, who lives in Washington, D.C. Sometimes they watch the same movie at the same time just to share something in common.
Those conversations and connections became even more dear after the death this year of Clark’s brother and grandmother on the East Coast.
“It’s changed my outlook on the vulnerability of life,” she said.
This story is part of a 13-day series that looks at all the ways 2020 has changed us. From now until 2021, expect stories on workplace and education, sports, economics, politics and everything in between.