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KUNC is here to keep you up-to-date on the news about COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — Colorado's response to its spread in our state and its impact on Coloradans.

As Many Older Coloradans Still Live In Isolation, A Son Sings Outside His Mom's Window

Courtesy of Michael Nicosia
Rosemary Nicosia looks at her son, Michael Nicosia, from her wheelchair inside an assisted living center in Aurora, Colorado. Michael Nicosia started singing to her outside her window when visitors were barred because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Michael Nicosia's voice echoes across a quiet street lined with tall trees and neatly cut lawns. He's standing outside a closed window at Makarios Assisted Living at Lehigh in Aurora. He's singing: "When you're smiling, the whole world smiles with you."

His audience is on the other side of the window, his silver-haired mother, Rosemary. Her hands are clasped together. Her eyes beam at her son through her glasses. And she's smiling.

As many Coloradans return to work and define a new "normal" amid the coronavirus pandemic, life for older and disabled people living at nursing homes and assisted living centers will remain unchanged. Family members and friends can't come in to visit, a decree that's been in place since mid-March when the pandemic first hit the state.

"We were just getting her used to not living with us and being with strangers and everything and that's all she's with," Nicosia said with a laugh, shrugging his shoulders.

Like dozens of senior care facilities around Colorado, Makarios Assisted Living is contending with an outbreak of COVID-19. Employees wear masks and gloves, according to the center's management.

So does Nicosia, as he dials up his cell phone outside his mom's window.

"Hi mom!" Nicosia said.

"Hi Michael," she answered.

"How're you doing?" he asked.

"OK," she replied.

The conversation ranges from family concerns to some of Rosemary's own. She is in a wheelchair, which is hard for her son to see because he isn't able to help her with physical therapy.

"I wish I could get up and move around more, but I can't," she said.

Because of the pandemic, there are no social events to look forward to. Rosemary is sequestered in her room. The center provides the usual distractions — a radio, books, magazines — but her son's visit, Rosemary said, is the highlight of her day.

"When he's here, it's wonderful to me," she said. "Just to see him."

He's her bridge to much of the world.

"I tend to be her lifeline to the rest of the family who is out of town because she has a hard time working the telephone on her own," Nicosia said. "So if I'm here I can do a conference call with other family members and keep those connections going."

Nobody knows when families will be invited back into nursing homes and assisted living centers, not even Randy Kuykendall, the director of the division that oversees senior care facilities for the state's Department of Public Health and Environment.

"We know this is just heartbreaking for families and so difficult for them," he said. "When lives are on the line, I think we all need to pitch in and be willing to do what we need to do. At this point, I wouldn't venture a guess."

In the latest tally provided by state officials, 529 people have died from COVID-19 in nursing homes, assisted living and other senior care centers. That's about 57% of all deaths in Colorado.

Social life at facilities might be on hold until there's a vaccine for the virus, Kuykendall said.

That could be months, even years away, raising another issue for residents in care centers: isolation. That's according to the national AARP Foundation, the charitable affiliate of AARP that's focused on reducing poverty among older Americans while increasing their social connectedness.

"For older adults, as they age, the incidence of prolonged isolation and/or loneliness increase," said Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of the foundation. "So already before the pandemic, about a quarter of older adults were experiencing social isolation and 35% reported that they were lonely."

Credit Michael Nicosia
Rosemary Nicosia said visits from her son, Michael Nicosia, are the highlight of her days at an assisted living center in Aurora, Colorado.

While isolation helps protect residents from exposure to the virus, it also can negatively impact their health. Marsh Ryerson cited research on isolation backed by the National Academies of Science.

"It certainly can add to an increase in depression and anxiety and, in the case of prolonged loneliness, there is a connection to earlier death," she said.

There are simple actions people can take, even if they can't see their loved ones in person. They should reach out to the ones they love. Older people, Marsh Ryerson said, can take inventory of their family and friends with the goal of connecting, or reconnecting, with them. The key is communication in any form.

That includes singing.

Michael Nicosia is a vicar in the Ecumenical Catholic Communion. He said if there was no pandemic, he'd be inside Makarios Assisted Living singing to all the residents, like he used to do. He's invited other residents to come to their windows to hear him.

As the pandemic continues, Nicosia said he will return to his mom's window every day. That includes Mother's Day, which is this weekend. He said he will bring a card and help his mom conference call family members. He will also let his mom know how he feels about her.

"I love you," Nicosia said to his mother.

"I love you more," she answered.

AARP Foundation's Connect2Affect offers advice on how older Americans can be more connected in the age of pandemic: https://connect2affect.org

As investigative reporter for KUNC, I take tips from our audience and, well, investigate them. I strive to go beyond the obvious, to reveal new facts, to go in-depth and to bring new perspectives and personalities to light.
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