The new normal at StoneBridge Senior Living in Westphalia has been a strange silence because of the lack of the usually constant visitors, but residents and staff got some joy Saturday from a caravan of kin that paraded around the outside of the building.
Julie Heckman, administrator of the senior home, said 98 vehicles took part in the parade, and it was enough to last nearly 20 minutes.
Police temporarily shut down U.S. 63 to let the parade pull into StoneBridge's parking lot and loop around the building.
Many vehicles had balloons and well-wishing signs attached, and residents and staff watched from just outside the main entrances of the building — some with signs of their own.
Heckman said the home has been closed to visitors since mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic has been especially dangerous in nursing homes and other such facilities around the country because of the close quarters and particularly vulnerable population.
While keeping visitors out is for the good of the residents' physical health, Heckman teared up thinking about the impact the prolonged separation has had: "I know it's hard on the families and the residents."
She said there have been window visits and video chat meetings, but that's just not the same.
"It was awesome to see these families again," Heckman said of the parade — the idea for which came from seeing news of similar festivities from around the country.
Heckman, who has worked at StoneBridge for 12 years and been administrator for about three years, said during the parade, she recognized not just family members of current residents but also of people who used to live there.
It's reflective of community ties that run deep, she said.
Being located in a small community, referrals to the home often come from even smaller towns around it, Heckman said, adding when visitors would come, it would often be to see multiple residents.
She said all but a few residents came out to watch the parade Saturday. There are 53 residents living in skilled care and another 19 residents in an assisted living setting.
"That was wonderful," Mary Jane Henke, 92, said of the parade — interviewed afterward through a screen door with Heckman and this reporter wearing medical-grade respirator masks on the other side of the door outside.
Henke, originally from Taos, said she's been living at StoneBridge since December 2019.
Of her 11 children, eight are alive, and six took part in the parade Saturday — with lots of grandchildren and great-grandchildren in tow.
Henke said she does talk on the phone with her family sometimes, and otherwise, she passes the days watching TV, including Mass and the rosary.
Heckman said the staff has continued to hold activities for residents, though much more limited than before, such as having only one resident at a table or doing hallway bingo.
"You have to adjust your life," Henke said but said she still loves life.
"This is a wonderful place, and they've been very kind to me," she said.
Heckman — who said she also has a grandma at StoneBridge — said while the parade Saturday was fun, she hopes to never have to do it again.
It's not yet clear when exactly nursing homes, long-term care facilities, retirement homes and assisted living homes may reopen to visitors.
The new statewide public health order that takes effect at 12:01 a.m. Monday, after the end of the current statewide stay-at-home order, states, in accordance with federal guidelines, people shall not visit such places "unless to provide critical assistance or in end-of-life circumstances. Elderly or otherwise vulnerable populations should take enhanced precautionary measures to mitigate the risks of contracting COVID-19."
The new public health order is currently scheduled to last through 11:59 p.m. May 31.
An update posted April 29 on StoneBridge Senior Living's Facebook page informed residents, family and friends that "long-term care facilities are likely to be one of the last to reopen to the public due to the vulnerable folks we serve."
Other posts on the page show photos from other recent activities during lockdown at the company's homes in Missouri and Arkansas — an a cappella performance through the windows at Villa Marie in Jefferson City, ponies visiting and hallway hula-hooping in Owensville, and shooting at some targets with water guns outside in Westphalia.
For now, after Saturday's parade, "Everyone's going to sleep better tonight," Heckman said.