Mary Daniel of Jacksonville, Florida, had not seen her husband, Steve, in 114 days after a state order barred visitors to care centers due to the coronavirus pandemic. Steve, 66, who has early onset Alzheimer's disease, resides in a memory care unit of a nursing home.
Daniel, 57, told TODAY that her husband began living at Rosecastle at Deerwood, an assisted living facility in Jacksonville, last July. She said it was a tough decision for him to go, but ultimately, Steve had shown that he thrived in an environment where he had opportunities to socialize.
Four months ago, everything changed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Florida. "I went to see him every single night, got him ready for bed," she said. "I went in on March 10 and on March 11 they called and said, 'You can’t come back.'"
According to a directive from Gov. Ron DeSantis, nursing homes in Florida are barred from having visitors due to the risk of spreading and contracting COVID-19. Nursing homes and assisted living facilities have been hit hard by the pandemic, since residents are older, often have underlying health conditions and live in close quarters that can exacerbate the spread of the respiratory virus.
Daniel explained that she tried visiting her husband through a window, but said he just cried and could not understand what was going on. Later on, she came up with a creative idea and reached out to Rosecastle staff and asked if she could volunteer or get a job at the care center just for the opportunity to see her husband of 24 years in person again. "They said, 'Let’s wait to see what happens,'" Daniel recalled.
"Then, out of the blue two weeks ago, they called and said, 'Do you want a job?' When I found out it was as a dishwasher, I thought, 'Well, okay! I guess I'm a dishwasher now.'"
When the couple finally reunited in person, Daniel said that Steve became teary-eyed and even said her name, a sign that he recognized his wife.
Daniel says that thankfully Steve's home, which is small and has only 50 residents, has had zero cases of COVID-19. She has taken several tests for the virus, all which came back negative, and underwent strict training before starting work at Rosecastle.
"I had to have a background check, a drug test, a COVID test, 20 hours of video training on everything, including infectious diseases. It was 100 percent legit."
Daniel said that she takes COVID-19 very seriously. "The last thing I want is to be reckless and bring it in there," she said. "I’ve been tested three times. I’m not going places I don’t need to go. If I have to go to the grocery store, I’m social distancing."
Daniel reports for duty two days a week to work an hour-and-a-half shift. Then she spends her evenings with Steve just the way she did before the pandemic — helping him get out of his clothes and prepare for nighttime.
She said that the staff are happy to have her back since they are currently overwhelmed now that families aren't present to spend time with and assist residents.
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"They were used to families being there, we were a huge help."
"Mary has been a part of our Deerwood family since her husband, Steve, moved into our community, but we are proud to welcome her onto our team," said Kelley Withrow, executive director for Rosecastle at Deerwood in a statement emailed to TODAY.
"Visitor restrictions have been put in place at communities across our state as a safety measure, aimed at protecting the vulnerable population we serve. But it has been hard on families and residents alike, so we felt creative solutions were necessary, especially in the case of Mary and Steve. We are happy to report that Mary is off to a great start in her new role, and we are excited to see the positive changes in Steve's demeanor as well."
Daniel believes there's a way to be mindful about COVID-19 without tearing residents of assisted living facilities apart from their loved ones. She even started a Facebook group named "Caregivers for Compromise," that is calling for Gov. DeSantis to start communicating with caregivers and to recognize the harsh impact isolation from their loved ones has on nursing home residents.
"Our number one goal is to get communication with the governor," Daniel said. "We are asking for a contact. Just simple guidelines. What do we need to get there?" She is also busy connecting with other families in the same position as she is in, and exploring different ways to move forward, including having visits take place in a clean room that is sanitized or outdoors.
Gov. DeSantis has added another 60 days to the ban on visits to nursing facilities. For now, Daniel will keep reporting to work.
"I don’t mind being busy. Then I get the reward at the end," she said of her work at Rosecastle.
This story first appeared on TODAY.com. More from TODAY: