With elderly populations especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, nursing homes and assisted living centers in Vermont have drastically limited access for visitors. For the Austins, a couple that began dating just after World War II, it’s the first time they’ve been apart.
“He was 20 and I was 16 when we met in church,” said Marion Austin, who sat on the couch in her Rutland living room last Friday and looked through old photo albums. “We were sitting in the balcony… and we kind of chatted up during the service, and then afterwards went out for a soda. It was probably six or eight months later that he asked me to go steady.”
Marion is petite and lively, with short white hair and bright blue eyes. As she showed a photo from her and John’s wedding, she said, “That was who he was around the time when I met him: Johnny Austin. He was so handsome.”
The two were married when Marion was 19 and John was 23, on Oct. 7, 1950. This year, in October, will mark their 70th wedding anniversary.
The Austins moved to Vermont with their three children in 1969. Marion was a housewife and John was a home builder. When their kids were grown, Marion returned to school to get a master’s degree in counseling psychology and went to work.
For his part, John kept building houses until he retired in his 60s. He stayed active by skiing and playing tennis, but Parkinson’s disease and dementia slowly took their toll on him, and caring for him eventually became too much for Marion.
In July 2018, John checked into The Pines, a nursing home in Rutland. Marion began living by herself for the first time at age 86.
“Someone used the term ‘ambiguous grieving’ because you’re grieving for someone who’s still here,” said Marion of caring for John through his dementia. “It was beginning a series of letting go: First of all, letting go by letting someone else take care of him — I still did his laundry. Then finally, I let go of that.”
However, she couldn’t let go of daily visits to see John, tell him she loved him and make sure he had whatever he needed.
“This is where the ‘for better or for worse’ comes in, you know?” she said.
Marion said she visited John nearly every day until last week, when nursing homes everywhere began to limit outside visitors to protect their clients from the coronavirus and COVID-19.
“It’s not terrible or awful, it’s just different,” she said of the change. She understands and appreciates the precautions and, having visited so often, she knows and trusts the staff at The Pines.
“I don’t have any worries about his care. I know the people who are going to be sure he’s OK,” she said. For example: “There’s a gal in activities who always makes sure his hearing aids are in there … and somebody else who makes sure he gets to all of the musical programs.”
And now, staff at The Pines are also helping Marion FaceTime with John, since she can’t be there to spend time with him in person.
On a recent day, she gave him a call.
“Hi Honey! Can you see me?” she asked.
With the help of a nurse, John replied: “Marion — yes, I’m here.”
Resting her phone on her lap, Marion relaxed, laughing with John and his nurse as she heard about his day, including how he’d laughed and joked through a dinner the night before with a friend named Lena at the nursing home.
“But we’re still married right?” Marion said with a smile.
“Yeah, I hope so!” John said.
“We are, honey!”
“I’ll find out when you get here,” John said, laughing.
“I’ll get there when I can, OK?” Marion said. “I can’t get there just yet, but I’ll get there sometime, OK?”
“Don’t forget me,” John said.
“I love you.”
“I love you too… bye.”
They talked like this for about three minutes.
For Marion, visits with John are always bittersweet. Their conversations aren’t real conversations anymore. Even when she’d see him in person at the nursing home, she admits she felt exhausted in the elevator, heading home.
But not being able to see him is harder. She worries he’ll forget her.
“I think the only way we’re going to know the full impact is by… how long… this will go on,” Marion said. “If it goes on a week, two weeks, if I’m not able to go for a month, will he know me then? Maybe not.”
The concerns over COVID-19 are real, and Marion appreciates that she and her husband are at high risk. However, it’s been hard; her caregivers support group has canceled its meetings and isolation looms.
“I try not to be afraid. I don’t want to live my life in fear,” she said. “The two words that come to mind are trust and gratitude. I have a lot of trust and gratitude for what is.”
And faith, she added, knowing the situation is out of her hands.
“That’s why, from the day John went in that nursing home — even before — I have disciplined myself to take one day at a time. I’m still learning; I haven’t gotten there,” she said with a laugh. “But if I can stay in the present, I’m not thinking about how long this is going to go on. I can’t.”
So, she said, if all she has right now is FaceTime with her husband, she’ll be grateful for that.