92 Years Old, Scared and Pleading to Come Home

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By Dan Barry Ny Times March 19 2020

A family grapples with a wrenching coronavirus question: Do we leave our father in the nursing home?

Joseph Trinity, pictured here in the 1950s, lived at home until last month, when a fall sent him into a rehabilitation center. 
Joseph Trinity, pictured here in the 1950s, lived at home until last month, when a fall sent him into a rehabilitation center. 

His daughters were not at his bedside, holding his hand. His sons were not making him smile with wisecracks about the institutional setting. His grandchildren were not cheering him up with reports from the distant world of youth.THE LATEST:Read our live coverage of the coronavirus in New York.

Joseph Trinity’s family members were there one day, and then they were not, for the same reason much of the world is trying to suppress the human desire to be with one another: the coronavirus.

Mr. Trinity had found himself in a New Jersey rehabilitation facility that, like most health care institutions across the country, had declared a no-visitor policy to stem contagion. But he is 92, and in fragile health; family sustains him.

Several times a day, he would call his daughter, Mary Trinity, to ask in a faint, slightly garbled voice where everyone was — and to beg her to please, please, get him out of there.

Mr. Trinity was caught in a moment. And he wasn’t alone.

The federal government and various health care associations have issued strongly restrictive guidelines to prohibit family members and other nonessential personnel from visiting nursing homes, rehab centers and other facilities with older, vulnerable residents.

“We know there have been challenging episodes with family members, vendors, state survey teams and even a few ombudsmen or postal carriers, not wanting to comply,” Mark Parkinson, the president of the American Health Care Association and the National Center for Assisted Living, wrote last week. As awareness of the coronavirus grows, he added, “hopefully those challenges will diminish.”

But Richard J. Mollot, the director of the Long Term Care Community Coalition, an advocacy group for people in institutional residential settings, said in an email that he was “deeply concerned about residents being cut off from their loved ones.”

While emphasizing the need for extensive precautions, Mr. Mollot said that banning family members, but not employees who come and go — some to second jobs as home-care aides — makes no sense. He also noted that families are more than friendly faces; they help with eating and drinking and with monitoring medications and treatment.

“What are residents going to do without them?” he asked.

Mr. Trinity’s own odyssey began at his home late last month, as he pushed his walker to the bathroom to brush his teeth before calling it a night. He fell beside the sink, fractured his hip and could not get up. His live-in caretaker alerted his family.

Soon an ambulance was taking him away from his home in Maplewood, N.J., in a blur of flashing red lights.

This was the house that Mr. Trinity and his wife, Mary, bought in 1959, the same year the couple, both public schoolteachers, married. This was the house where they raised five children on not a lot of money; brief summer vacations meant a motel pool and pizza as a special treat.

He taught drama and speech at Jonathan Dayton High School in nearby Springfield for 30 years. The photos of him in yearbooks stored in the basement mark time’s passage, progressing from military-style buzz cuts to blondish-gray hair touching the ears.

Mr. Trinity retired but sold real estate part-time. Children married. His Mary died at 62: irreplaceable. Grandchildren crawled, then walked, then invited him to high school and college and law school graduations.

Mobility declined, and some independence was forfeited, reluctantly. But there was a cocktail before dinner, and “Jeopardy” at 7, and family gatherings on Sundays and holidays — until it was all interrupted by a fall.

Mr. Trinity waited until five the next morning before receiving a bed at a hospital in Summit, six miles away. Two of his children stayed with him through the night and into the next day, when he underwent surgery. The three other children soon arrived, from western New Jersey and Boston and Washington, D.C., to hold hands, crack wise and just be there, as February gave way to March.

They took note of the bathroom signs recommending that they sing the ABCs while washing hands to scrub out the H.A.I.s, or hospital acquired infections. They made liberal use of the hand sanitizer dispensers at every entrance and exit.LIVE UPDATES:Read the latest news on the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr. Trinity barely caught his breath before being taken, again by ambulance, to a rehabilitation center, where he was to engage in physical and occupational therapies. But this was a 92-year-old man who had had trouble walking even before his hip fracture, and who was also navigating the disorienting sea of pain, medication and an institution that was not his home.

Then, at noon on March 13 — only a week ago — the facility barred visitors. No familiar faces. No jokes. No reassuring squeezes of his hand.

Mr. Trinity begged by telephone to be rescued, his words weak, anxious, sometimes disconnected. His children faced a heartbreaking dilemma.

Should their father remain in the care of professionals who were much better equipped to handle his myriad needs? Or was he at greater risk of contracting the virus by remaining in an institution?

And given the prevailing threat and the open-endedness of restrictions, was it possible they would never see him again?

On Saturday night, the five Trinity children talked it through by conference call. But they already knew there was really only one answer.

On Sunday, they divided assignments: calling the doctors and hospice services and the home health care agency; preparing the family home by moving the table out of the dining room and clearing clutter; ordering a bed; reassuring him when he called again.

And they arranged for an ambulance, which pulled up to the facility early Monday afternoon. Soon a wheeled-out Mr. Trinity was squinting in the daylight.

“I’m so happy,” he said from the gurney. “This is the second-happiest day of my life.”

Two emergency medical technicians locked him in place, closed the back doors and headed off for Maplewood. The ambulance wended its way through a landscape thoroughly altered from the one Mr. Trinity had left behind less than three weeks earlier.

Past the West Essex Y.M.C.A., closed, and the Livingston Public Library, closed. Past an electronic sign reminding people to wash hands, and a ShopRite so packed that the presence of a police car with blinking lights was required.

The ambulance passed through a suburban landscape that looked the same, yet was transformed somehow, as if existing in a state of suspension. Then it drove into his hometown, where the schools are closed and the playgrounds padlocked.

The ambulance turned right onto his street and passed the century-old houses he still identifies by the surnames of the families who lived there 30, 40, 50 years ago. Finally, it pulled up to his own home, where six family members were waiting.

“Welcome home!” someone called out.

“Thank you, thank you,” he said, failing not to cry.

The two E.M.T.s, wearing blue latex gloves, wheeled him up a ramp and gently placed him in the bed that now centered the dining room. Family photographs were displayed on a cabinet, along with a fresh bouquet of yellow roses.

“The flowers are beautiful,” said Joe Trinity, my father-in-law.

Dan Barry is a longtime reporter and columnist, having written both the “This Land” and “About New York” columns. The author of several books, he writes on myriad topics, including sports, culture, New York City, and the nation.

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