Despite being physically isolated in her Squirrel Hill apartment these days, Shulamit Bastacky, a Holocaust survivor, has an optimistic outlook in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.
“I always say, ‘There is a light at the end of the tunnel,’” said Bastacky, who does not have the virus, but is following recommendations regarding social distancing. “And as someone else said, ‘We shall overcome.’”
Bastacky is missing the typical group activities organized for seniors in her building but finds solace in the many phone calls she receives from friends and family, and from staff at the Jewish Association on Aging.
“I got a call from a cousin from Oregon, and from a friend from Iowa who I knew as a child in Poland, and one from a friend who lives in Germany,” said Bastacky. “Reaching out to each other is very important. Verbal communication is the key.”
One thing Bastacky does miss, though, is the schmoozing she has become accustomed to when the volunteers from Mollie’s Meals deliver prepared food to her apartment three times a week. While the meals are still coming, the interactions with the volunteers are brief because of health concerns.
“Today, I just opened the door, spoke for a second, and that’s about it,” said Bastacky. “But they’ve been calling to check if I’m OK. I think they are doing a good job in view of this situation, as are the people who are making these meals.”
Demand for Mollie’s Meals, a kosher meals-on-wheels organization that partners with the Allegheny Area on Aging and AgeWell Pittsburgh, has “sky-rocketed” since government officials urged everyone — especially the elderly and infirm — to stay home as much as possible, according to Sharyn Rubin, director of resident and community services at the JAA’s Charles Morris Nursing & Rehabilitation Center.
Not all those requesting meals are doing so because of financial hardship, said Rubin. Some are requesting the meal delivery service because they cannot get out to buy food, or because they are lonely.
The JAA staff has been preparing for weeks for the virus to hit Southwestern Pennsylvania, getting plans and strategies in place to keep their residents well physically and mentally.
“We started feeling this before everyone else, and we were a little bit ahead of everyone else,” said Rubin.
Senior care facilities such as nursing homes are particularly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. In Kirkland, Washington, at least 30 deaths have been linked to a nursing home there, and there have been reports of the virus spreading in senior facilities in Illinois, Wyoming and Oregon. As of press time, there have been no reported cases of the coronavirus at JAA facilities.
The umbrella organization, which operates the Charles Morris Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, the AHAVA Memory Care Center of Excellence, the Residence at Weinberg Village and the Bartlett Street’s Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Terrace, has implemented strict guidelines in its efforts to ward off the virus, including prohibiting anyone who is not an employee from entering its buildings.
That means no visitors, which is hard on the residents.
“The staff is trying to play the roles of the family,” said Rubin, who emphasized that activities to keep the residents engaged are continuing, albeit in innovative formats.
Take bingo, for example, a favorite pastime among the residents at Charles Morris. Because they can no longer congregate as a group for the game, a staff member goes from room to room calling out the numbers. Arts and crafts are continuing as well, but instruction is individualized in each resident’s room.
Because meals no longer take place in communal areas, “We are trying to pump in music,” to make dining more pleasant, said Rubin. “We are trying to be as out of the box as we can.”
The residents are able to keep in touch with their families with iPads, with staff available to help them use video technology to see their loved ones and for their loved ones to see them and be assured that they are OK.
“The residents who are alert and oriented are thrilled,” with FaceTime and Skype, said Rubin, and those with dementia and impaired orientation also often show some “recognition of the voices, and relief.”
Because Shabbat services cannot be held during this social distancing phase of the pandemic, Rabbi Eli Seidman, the JAA’s director of pastoral care, goes from room to room to visit those residents who typically join him for Saturday morning services, said Rubin.
And a cadre of volunteers has been sending letters and cards and pictures to the residents to help keep them connected.
While “we are all just sad,” said Rubin, “the sounds of laughter are still coming out and I love those. We are realizing truly that we are all in this together.”
For Bastacky, social interaction, in whatever form it takes, is essential.
“Friends call, and I call others,” she said. “It could have been worse. Being a survivor, I can say we have to hope for the best and be supportive of other people.”
At Bastacky’s senior apartment building, there will be no group seder this year, but she is taking that in stride.
“It’s better to be safe and cautious,” she said. “We will overcome this difficulty just like our ancestors did in Egypt.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at