WILLMAR, Minn. -- It’s a cool, foggy Tuesday afternoon. I stand in the foyer of the Bethesda senior living community in Willmar wearing a pair of rain boots, with a camera hanging from a strap around my neck. As the photojournalist for the West Central Tribune, I’ve taken photos at Bethesda many times, but never quite like this.
Tiffany Picard, the recreation director and volunteer coordinator at Bethesda, walks through the glass doors and greets me with a warm smile. She shows me a map of the facility with red dots marked on the rooms I would be visiting from the exterior.
Two days prior, I called Tiffany with an idea in mind: I wanted to photograph residents through the window in an attempt to capture what they’re feeling amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. Immediately she was on board.
“It’s been different since we closed the doors to visitors,” she said. “We feel closer than ever before.”
Bethesda, one of the largest senior care centers in the region, began restricting all visitors to the facility in mid-March to prevent potential risk of COVID-19 exposure to residents. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, adults 65 years and older are at higher risk for severe illness and eight out of 10 deaths reported in the U.S. have been in the 65-plus age range.
“We made that decision before a lot of other places were required to close. It just confirmed to me that we’re really here for our residents at Bethesda,” she said. “We’re putting their safety first.”
I am not allowed to enter the building, which means I need to rely on the staff to ask residents who would be interested and to make sure they are physically capable.
Fortunately, Tiffany makes things extremely easy. She hands me a list of seven residents who agreed to be photographed and calls Ross Brandt, Bethesda’s facility director. Ross is going to show me the outside of the residents’ rooms so I am able to photograph them through the window.
Let’s just say — I’m really glad I wore my boots.
Ross and I arrive at the first room. Tiffany is inside before we arrive to make sure the resident is ready. She then asks them what they want people to know and writes their response on a paper sign.
Emotions well up in me. My grandmother passed away in April 2017. She lived in a memory care assisted living community for her last days of life. I was so lucky to have the privilege of spending time with her before she passed. So, so lucky.
As I peer through the glass windows at Bethesda, the gloomy day seems brighter. The residents' smiles are infectious.
One resident in particular, Louise Novotny-Stokes, makes me laugh. I was fumbling with my camera trying to find the right angle. As I’m focusing, she peers through the window into the courtyard and puts her hand over her mouth as if she's seeing something for the first time. After I finish taking photos, I meet up with Tiffany once again in the front entrance.
“Do you have any other questions?” she asks.
Yes, in fact I do.
“What happened with Louise? Why did she cover her mouth like she was gasping?” It seemed like a beautiful moment — so dramatic and moody.
“Oh, she was just covering her mouth because she was laughing. She said you were taking a really long time to take the photo. She told me that I could tell you that too,” she said.
I burst out laughing. That was not what I thought had happened.
Of course there is distance and there is fear. But there is laughter, joy and snarky senses of humor. Life keeps on. We adapt and move forward with what is presented before us — it just takes time to find the right camera settings.
Thank you, Louise. I’ll try and be a little quicker next time.
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