APOLLO BEACH, Fla. - Patty Wood knew her husband Gregg, would die from Alzheimer’s. For years as she watched the illness slowly steal the man she loved bit by bit, she steeled herself for the inevitable -- but nothing could have prepared her for what Gregg’s passing would look like in the time of COVID-19.
“I watched other people decline," Patty said, "so I'd prepared myself for what I would see, but then I didn't have the opportunity to have any of those moments. I just had to hear from afar, 'He's not responding to this, he's not responding to that, he's not eating he won't even wake up to get out of bed.'”
The state of Florida placed residents of nursing homes under strict no-visitor policies since Governor Ron DeSantis signed an executive order on March 14.
The rules are meant to protect Florida’s most vulnerable citizens. Men and women 65 and over make up 85% of coronavirus deaths in the state. More than half of those killed by the virus in Florida lived in nursing homes.
The restrictions, however, aren’t without consequences. The lockdowns have taken a mental and physical toll on residents and their loved ones, but they’re especially harsh for memory care patients and their families.
“At first, it was very upsetting to me because my concern was if he didn’t see me he would forget me,” explained Patty.
Patty played a daily role in her husband’s care, serving as a familiar presence as everything Gregg knew slipped away.
“They couldn't risk bringing it into the facility,” said Patty. “I get that part, then at the same time it's very difficult when you don't get to spend those last few weeks or days with them. I don't know what he thought when I stopped showing up.”
When his hospice said they could no longer allow visitors, Patty pushed back. As a registered caregiver she was eventually able to get back inside his hospice to be with him again.
Even that, however, proved fleeting.
Once Patty could no longer self-report that her community of Apollo Beach had no cases of coronavirus, she was no longer allowed inside to see her husband.
“I knew that that was kind of the beginning, probably of the end for him,” said Patty.
About a week later, she was finally granted permission to visit Gregg again, but only to say her final goodbyes.
“I had to wear a mask and gloves and the gown. It was really hard holding his hand through my gloves. I told him that he fought valiantly and that it was OK to go and then the next day he went.”
Gregg Wood, a Vietnam veteran who was awarded a Bronze Star and the Air Medal for Heroism, passed away on April 14, 2020. He was 73 years old.
Policy makers and medical experts are facing an incredible dilemma, caught balancing patient safety with quality of life.
Last month, Governor DeSantis said he wanted to create a path to allow loved ones to be able to visit inside nursing homes again.
“I just want to be able to know that we have procedures in place that if someone goes to visit their mother, that two weeks later we are not going to have 50 infections roil a nursing home or a long-term care facility,” DeSantis said during a press conference in May.
But more than a month later and with cases on the rise once again in the Sunshine State, there’s still no word on when and how restrictions could loosen.
As the virus continues to exact an overwhelming toll on the most vulnerable, there are no easy answers -- only painful, and lonely losses.
Meanwhile, Patty says she’s trying to focus on the years she had with Gregg, before his disease set in and before the pandemic stole their final days together.
“Gregg was the absolute best man I have ever known. He was athletic, incredibly handsome and had the most dynamic smile. He had an incredible wit and an outstanding sense of humor. He was generous, helpful and kind – so it was so hard to watch while Alzheimer’s ripped all of that from him,” said Patty. “When I get sad, I just try to focus on the saying, 'Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.'”