Opinion: Couple finds way to tough out pandemic age

Larry Burnett and his wife Carol.
Larry Burnett and his wife Carol.

Credit: Sandra Ball

Credit: Sandra Ball

When his wife’s nursing home went on lockdown, he got a job there.

In 62 years of marriage, Larry and Carol Burnett had never been apart for more than a week. Even after Carol, 83, moved into a full-time nursing facility, Larry saw her every day, arriving by 8 a.m. and typically spending nearly 12 hours by her side before going home for the night.

And then COVID-19 hit their home state of Michigan.

Back in March, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer placed the state’s long-term care facilities on lockdown, prohibiting visitors who “are not necessary for medical care, support of activities of daily living like bathing or eating, or that are not visiting under exigent circumstances.”

The executive order included Regency on the Lake, the eastern Michigan nursing home where Carol has lived since 2018.

And that meant that Larry, 80, could no longer step inside.

As weeks turned into months, both Larry and Carol grew despondent.

“When it happened, and he couldn’t come anymore, he would call and talk to us and you could hear his depression,” said Sandra Ball, the activities director at Regency on the Lake. “You could see his wife’s depression.”

In June, Ball had a thought.

Regency on the Lake was looking to hire a part-time aide to help coordinate activities for residents. The job had been posted online for three weeks, but no one had applied. And Larry, who spent all of his free time at the facility before the pandemic, was already familiar with the activities program.

So, Ball called and offered him the gig.

He’d have access to the facility, but only during specific hours on certain days of the week.

His hiring would be contingent on the results of a physical and some medical tests.

If he passed, Larry would have to wear a medical-grade mask to work and submit to the same weekly COVID-19 tests that the full-time employees undergo.

“I said, ‘When do I start?’” Larry recalled.

He began work several weeks ago, reuniting with his wife for the first time since March.

On duty, he cooks for residents, plays music and organizes outdoor time, but spends his 30-minute lunch break – and some extra time each morning and evening – with Carol.

“She hadn’t hardly been out of her room since the COVID thing started, and she’s coming out now,” Larry said. “It’s not the same as before because I have to wear a mask and I’m supposed to keep my distance, and that’s hard.

“But, before, we were both worried that one of us would die without being able to see each other again,” he said. “And we feel much better now.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram writes for Route Fifty, which covers news, technology, innovation and best practices in state, county and municipal governments across the United States.