Older Coloradans Are Making New Holiday Traditions As Coronavirus Keeps Them Isolated

December 23, 2020
Bob and Maureen Thrash in their outdoor tent for safe holiday gatherings. Bob and Maureen Thrash in their outdoor tent for safe holiday gatherings. Bob Thrash
Bob and Maureen Thrash in their outdoor tent for safe holiday gatherings.

Denise Wood lives alone in Denver, and that's how she’s spending Christmas this year — alone. 

“I am trying to make it as festive as possible, and I am trying not to dwell on how bad I feel about being here alone,” she said.

Her only daughter lives in California. They decided not to travel to see each other because of COVID-19. Wood moved all of her usual Christmas celebrations online to lower her risk of getting sick. 

“My daughter and I had set up a cookie exchange across the miles,” she said. “And in the process of that, I realized that just the act of baking felt festive to me. It reminded me of many Christmases baking with my own mom.”

She’s decorating her house with some of her favorites and cooking the Christmas feast she would have made for friends and family, but much smaller for just herself.

Denise Wood is spending Christmas alone this year. She decided to decorate to feel a little more festive.

“I'm sort of surprised at how comforting I have found it to be, to be planning the things that I would be planning for all of us, even though it's just for me,” she said. “The same thing with the baking, you know, all of it is evocative of wonderful Christmases past. So even though we won't be together it's still festive, it still feels like a thing to do.” 

Wood fought back tears, but she said it’s important to stay safe so that next year, and for years to come, she can spend holidays with those she loves. 

The toll of isolation is taxing on everyone, but for those who are older than 65 or who have comorbidities, the fear of COVID-19 is an additional layer of stress and anxiety.

“I have been just inspired and so impressed by the creativity of my patients and the resiliency that they've shown,” said Samanth Farro, a behavioral health psychologist at the UCHealth seniors clinic. 

She said her patients have taken this year as an opportunity to figure out how to continue doing the things that make them feel good but in a safe way. 

“People are having to really experiment with different things. Maybe they're starting to try to learn a new instrument or they're taking online adult learning classes,” she said. “Just talking to friends on the phone, scheduling video dates and dinners over video or telephone coffee dates every morning. These are the creative ways that I've really just seen patients try to adapt to this situation.” 

For the holidays, people are getting creative to see their families. 

Terry and Dan Lowe, both 66, are having their daughter and her boyfriend over to their home in Breckenridge for Christmas happy hour outside by the fire pit before it gets dark. This Christmas was one Terry was looking forward to, her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren usually go to Alabama for the holiday, but this year they were staying in Colorado. 

“And I said, ‘Yahoo,’ we can all be together for Christmas, and I'll cook a big Christmas dinner and we'll set the dining room table and have presents and all that stuff,” she said. “But you know, as it turns out that just isn’t gonna work.”

Katie and Eric Lowe joined their older parents for an outdoor Thanksgiving gathering.

Bob, 69, and Maureen, 64, Thrash from Loveland are also doing an outdoor gathering. They have set up a shelter that has a fire pit and two outdoor couches, spaced 6-feet apart with plenty of cross-ventilation. 

“We were just getting bored and lonely,” he said. “But this works really well.” 

Many people and families have been resourceful and creative this year to accommodate social distancing and other safety precautions. 

“There's a lot of hopefulness for the vaccine and a sense that we are going to be able to make it,” said Dr. Hillary Lum, at the UCHealth Seniors Clinic. “My patients really are adjusting their traditions for this year and are really looking forward to 2021.”  

COVID-19 disproportionately impacts older adults. Eight out of 10 COVID-19 deaths reported in the U.S. have been in adults 65 years and older. Many of those deaths occurred in assisted living facilities and nursing homes across the country. 

“We did not get together for Thanksgiving, and that was hard,” said Evan McCollum, 66, who lives in an assisted living facility in Castle Rock. "We collectively decided not to get together physically for Christmas. And that was really a hard decision, but I think probably the right one.”

Evan McCollum, 66, lives in an assisted living facility in Castle Rock. He was diagnosed with COVID-19 just days before Christmas and was grateful he didn't decide to see his family this year.

The facility he lives in has been fighting a COVID-19 outbreak. Two of his granddaughters have cystic fibrosis, a hereditary disease that affects the lungs and digestive system. 

“The mere chance that I might catch it from one of these folks, but be asymptomatic and get together with the kids and grandkids and somebody catch it,” he said. “Oh, geez. I just, I couldn't live with that.”

Just days before Christmas, McCollum tested positive for COVID-19. He was asymptomatic and grateful to get to celebrate over Zoom with his family. 

Many seniors felt like this was one Christmas out of more in the future, even though this one may be a little painful. They were willing to do what it takes to stay safe to gather with family and friends in the future.

“I've run in a few marathons quite a long time ago, but one of the things that I learned about that is applicable to life, you have to pace yourself and you need to make the correct protocols,” said Terrie Allon, 69, of Edwards. “So you stay healthy and safe and injury free. So it's really kind of the same thing to me, this pandemic is like, OK, we need to make life changes to make it to the finish line. There's a finish line out there, everyone has one, we all do. This pandemic is not gonna be here forever.” 

Plus, older people have lifetimes of challenges they’ve overcome and learned from. 

“I just feel so much for the young people who aren't used to being closed up, and I feel very badly for extroverted people,” said Rachel Duvack, 68, from Denver. “Like one of my sons who had such a joyous experience at work and he's been closed up in a tiny apartment with his three cats for months now, and it's making him crazy.”

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