For her first authorized visit in more than six weeks with her 80-year-old mother, Sabrina Deliry prepared a selection of their favorite tunes, among them Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose.”
Later, at the Paris nursing home where the mother has been agonizing in the solitude of her room, feeling imprisoned and miserable without the sun on her cheeks, the breeze in her hair or her daughter’s tender hugs, they listened to the French songbird together.
“When he takes me in his arms,” Piaf wailed.
With mother and daughter forced to sit 1 meter (3 feet) apart, unable to hug or hold each other during their half-hour visit in the home’s fenced-off small garden, the words rang like a cruel joke.
When might Sabrina get to take Patricia, her mother, in her arms again? No one can say for sure. Likely no time soon.
Even before many businesses rumble back to life or schoolyards bustle again, France started to allow tightly regulated nursing home visits this week, puncturing a strict no-visitors lockdown that still failed to prevent an ongoing tidal wave of coronavirus deaths among elderly nursing home residents.
For some, seeing their parents again brought joy and relief.
“I know how important it is for her,” Christopher Cronenberger said after seeing his 87-year-old mother, Germaine, with a broad table and red-and-white plastic tape in between.
“We do have the telephone and my mother is still lucid. We speak by telephone every day. I knew things were okay but visual contact is better,” he said.
But for others, the visits are proving bittersweet: Better than nothing, but nowhere close to being enough. After all, how can a few minutes, sat across a table in face masks, make up for so many days apart?
Sabrina and Patricia were on the phone to each other minutes after they said goodbye with blown air kisses and the mother trundled back alone to her room in her motorized wheelchair, giving a final wave.
“Stopping us from seeing our children is a crime,” she said. “They wait for us to die before sending our children to us.”
The visit, she said, “makes me want to live again.”
But the next cannot come soon enough.
“We are in prison,” Patricia said.
As the virus raced through Europe, the hardest-hit countries – Italy, Spain, Britain, France – banned nursing home visits to protect the elderly, who are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. From Belgium to Turkey, several other countries did the same.
While the virus causes mild to moderate symptoms for many, it can trigger much more severe illness in older people and those with health problems. Nursing homes have been hard hit around the world. In France, more than one-third of the over 21,300 deaths reported have occurred in care homes.
The emotional toll of cutting off the homes has been immense and largely untold because the suffering has been taking place behind sealed-shut nursing home doors. For residents’ families, the only news some have had from the inside has been in dribs and drabs, in written updates from care home directors.
Now that visits are being allowed again, a fuller picture of the agony is starting to emerge.
French President Emmanuel Macron has taken notice. He led the push in March to seal off homes before the rest of the country, pleading publicly for people to stop visiting their elderly relatives before he ordered France into a nationwide lockdown from March 17.
This week, Macron retweeted a painful-to-watch interview with a 96-year-old nursing home resident, Jeanne Pault, complaining tearfully about being stuck in her room, deprived of the daily visits she used to get from her husband and family.
“I’m locked in here all day. It’s not a life,” she said. “My neighbor hasn’t got the virus. Neither have I. We could see each other from time to time, chat a little.”
In his tweet, Macron wrote: “Madame, your pain overwhelms us all. For you, for all of our elders in retirement homes or establishments, visits by loved ones are now allowed. Always with one priority: to protect you.”
But among families, fury is mounting with the death toll. Some are filing legal complaints accusing care homes of neglect and endangering lives.
Sabrina is among those who believes that nursing homes were sealed off not to protect residents but to prevent families from knowing what was happening inside.
“It sickens me,” she said. “Those are our parents behind those walls, my mother, our fathers. They have no right to deprive us of them like that.”
She worries that Patricia, a retired hairdresser who has suffered a stroke, will be even more diminished physically by weeks of being confined to her room.
“I’m going to fight,” she promised her mother in the phone call after their meeting. “Put bluntly, you have just two choices: either die from COVID or end up like vegetables.”