Pandemic Diaries: One Couple's Story of Isolation and Love in a Nursing Home
The coronavirus pandemic changed the way many of us do our jobs, including those of us here at NHPR - it's kept our reporters from getting out and recording your voices as much as usual.
So we asked people to record their own lives and share how daily life has been interrupted in big and small ways. That’s when we heard from Peter and Dotty Miller.
This is the story of a couple dealing with extreme isolation. Peter Miller lives in a nursing home (he's asked us not to say which one), while his wife, Dotty, lives in the house they shared for two decades.
For the past five years, Dotty has visited Peter twice a day, often helping with his care. But as the coronavirus swept through New Hampshire nursing homes, they were forced apart.
HOST INTRO: Nursing homes in New Hampshire have been devastated by the coronavirus. More than 80 percent of all COVID 19 deaths in the state are linked to long term care facilities. So to keep the virus out, nursing homes have been on lockdown for months. But health and safety has come a high cost: Many residents are dealing with extreme isolation without their usual visits from friends and loved ones
Today, we bring you the story of Peter and Dotty Miller.
Peter has lived in a nursing home for the past five years. He is deaf and deals with a variety of health problems that require around the clock care. His wife, Dotty, lives alone in the home they shared for two decades.
Normally, she would visit Peter twice a day. But the pandemic forced Dotty and Peter to separate. Here is their story, in their own words.
PETER MILLER, READING FROM JOURNAL: April 20th. My name is Peter Miller. I am 77 years old. The administrator of my nursing home knows that I like to write and suggested that I keep a record of my thoughts and feelings about the coronavirus pandemic in a journal. So that is what I’ve commenced today.
I want to try to describe what it’s like in my nursing home right now. Residents have not been allowed to have any visitors. We have been quarantined in our rooms for the whole two months, with no one but staff and our roommates to interact with.
(soft glass bowl music fades in)
Can’t management see that residents need more than nonstop TV to sustain their will to live? My roommate just sits in his armchair all day long listlessly watching the same TV channel. Is it OK to kill people with nothingness, if that’s what it takes to protect them from coronavirus?
PETER MILLER, READING FROM JOURNAL: April 27th. The lone exception to the no visitor rule is that a resident can have loved ones present while he is dying. My wife Dotty and I have shared our feelings about this. I told her that I would prefer she not be present while I am dying
: I don’t want her last memory of me to be how I looked when I was near death, and I don’t want her to expose herself to the virus.
(music fades out, sound of cooking eggs fades in)
DOTTY MILLER, PERSONAL RECORDING: Well, it’s a lovely morning, a little chilly, the way I like it. And I’m gonna make some scrambled eggs for me and the dogs.
DOTTY MILLER, ON THE PHONE: I'm glad that I like to be at home alone. Because otherwise, I don't know what I would do.
DOTTY ON THE PHONE: I felt really guilty that I couldn’t take care of him by myself. And we had, we had, home health aides coming in and it just wasn’t working. I moved through it until the COVID-19 crisis hit and people were dying in nursing homes and then I re-thought. I thought, is there any way he can live at home so he can be safe? And I - I can’t, we don’t have the funds for him to live at home. So my guilt came back because I know if he lives at home he’s safer. But I’m stuck not being able to provide that for him. I think it’s grief, I think I’m grieving.
(egg sizzling sounds fade out)
PETER MILLER, READING FROM JOURNAL: May 26th. Yesterday I watched one of my favorite movies, “The Best Years Of Our Lives.” Filmed after the Second World War ended, the movie portrays the difficulties soldiers experienced as they tried to readjust to civilian life. I liked the realism, particularly the awkwardness the men and their wives displayed as they tried to rekindle their romantic feelings. The film made me wonder how it will feel for me and Dotty when we are able to be together again.
(soft glass bowl music fades in)
Will we experience an awkward readjustment? I miss Dotty’s proximity and her affectionate touch. I feel so alone here sometimes.
(music fades out)
DOTTY, ON THE PHONE: So, first of all, I had a test for COVID 19 that came back negative. Then I sent an email to the administrator and said, “I'm free of COVID 19. Is there any way I can visit Peter?” And she said no. Which I kind of knew she was going to say, but I figured it was worth a try. And um, Peter has, gets terrible ear infections and it's been three months now, so we're worried that he has an ear infection. So the doctors office said he has to come in. So that's the only reason that he's allowed out of the building. And um, they said, why doesn’t Dotty go?
(guitar music fades in)
DOTTY: Yeah! I'm so excited, I can't believe it. I feel like it's our first date. I'm like (laughing) I'm like giddy with - oh my God, I can't believe it.
DOTTY, PERSONAL RECORDING: Now I’m getting in the car, I’m getting ready to see Peter, which I haven’t seen him in 3 months because of the pandemic. (Car door closes.)
DOTTY, ON THE PHONE: I pressed the record button while I was waiting for him and you can, and I listened to it, and you can hear my excitement and him coming through the door.
DOTTY, PERSONAL RECORDING: Oh here he is. Here he is. Is this him? Wait a minute. It’s him, yes. I haven’t seen him in three months.
DOTTY, ON THE PHONE: And there was no privacy in that moment so that was kind of weird, but you can tell in the tape. We’re - there’s no, there's no sound. We're just taking each other in.
DOTTY, PERSONAL RECORDING:
PETER: You look so nice!
DOTTY: I dressed up for our date!
PETER: I love your shawl.
DOTTY: (laughing) Awww.
PETER: Three whole months can you believe it?
DOTTY: It’s been so long.
PETER: This is wonderful.
DOTTY: It is.
DOTTY, ON THE PHONE: So we went down to the doctor’s office and they gave us, they put us in a room where the doctor was. And um, we told him that we hadn’t seen each other for 3 months. So after his appointment, the doctor was so cute, he was like, “We can just put you in another exam room and it’s like you’re being examined.” I was like, “That would be so wonderful! Thank you!”
PETER: I’m gonna leave my mask up.
DOTTY: Who cares.
PETER: Do you think I should put it back up?
PETER: It’s okay like this?
DOTTY: Yeah. I love you honey.
PETER: It shouldn’t be that difficult to make this happen periodically. Well, I’ll work on it.
(Sound of Dotty taking out plastic bags of cheese)
PETER: Oooh What’s that!
DOTTY: Cheddar. Swiss.
PETER: Mmmm, good thinking!
PETER: Maybe I’ll wheel forward a bit so we can touch.
(soft guitar music starts)
DOTTY: Okay, let’s hold hands.
DOTTY: How’s that? Your hands are so soft.
PETER: I better soak it up.
DOTTY: Me too.
PETER: Well, you have a lovely smile.
PETER: I hope I do too.
DOTTY: You do.
PETER: I’m glad you’re holding up well.
DOTTY: I am.
PETER: I know it hasn’t been easy for you either.
DOTTY: No, it hasn’t.
DOTTY: Do you want to kiss? Let’s kiss.
PETER: Aren’t we naughty!
PETER: Don’t tell anyone we did that.
DOTTY: It’s on, it’s on the tape.
DOTTY ON PHONE: Just you know to think for 25 years, we’ve been together -- we’ve been together. You know? Except for a couple weeks here and there, we’ve been together. And so, to be apart for three months...I mean even though he’s living in the nursing home, we were together every day, seven days a week, twice a day. So it gave me a taste for what it’s going to be like when he dies, if he dies before me. But he’s older than I am and his health is more compromised than mine. So, it gave me a taste of that. I realized that, as I was alone.
PETER MILLER, READING FROM JOURNAL: May 5th. I have been doing some end-of-life reflecting. Dotty and I are planning to meet in the afterlife. Years ago, she wanted to be reincarnated as a hawk. That inspired me to write a love poem for her, titled “Hawks”, way back in 1995, the second year of our marriage.
Waking again, that glorious feeling
Morning light shimmering on the ceiling,
A swift north wind disturbing autumn’s leaves,
The bedroom curtains swaying in the breeze.
“Well, my bride, my lover, what do you say,
Shall we meet on that mountain top today?
Hawks will be gliding south in graceful sweeps,
And you and I have promises to keep.”
HOST OUTRO: That was Peter and Dotty Miller - a couple separated by the coronavirus.
NHPR’s Lauren Chooljian produced this story.