By Lynn Jackson

Imagine for a moment that you are an elderly member of our community who has been taken to the hospital in distress and you have received a diagnosis of Coronavirus.  You are uncertain of what lies ahead, and you are suddenly thrust into the hands of strangers who cannot touch you with ungloved hands and cannot speak to you with unmasked lips.

Your family is very frightened, not only for your safety but for their own safety.  They do not know exactly how this virus spreads or how it harms people, but they do their best to comfort you in your final hours by phone or by video chat. Your final breath is taken, not alone, but in isolation from your loved ones.  Unfortunately, such is the moral distress that has manifested itself over and over in light of the current pandemic.

In the healthcare industry we have been strongly affected over these last few months by the term isolation.  In the hospital business we have always used the term isolation to denote patients who are ill and have a potentially contagious disease that we need to prevent from spreading.  Some of you may be more familiar with the idea of quarantine, which is the process in which people who have been exposed to an infectious disease, but are not yet known to be ill are kept separate from others and monitored.

The Novel Coronavirus, COVID-19 pandemic has brought to our attention an interesting aspect of isolation that may not have entered our care planning consciousness in such a unique way as it has today.

Older adults and those that are in communal living arrangements are being isolated from their families and we see in many cases they are experiencing physical and mental decline.  In the hospital environment it seems that we may have grossly underestimated the positive impact of the physical presence of family or a care partner at the patient bedside. Over the years of construction and interior design evolution, we have prioritized family connections and even created unique physical space within our patient care areas that facilitate family being in close, comfortable spaces immediately available as a support to the patient.

As the COVID virus has caused us to revise our visitation policies to a more conservative and restrictive visitation platform we see those empty family areas as an amplification of the isolation that our patients are feeling.  We have tried to be more creative and resourceful in utilizing alternate communication platforms (like ZOOM, Facetime, and scheduled phone conferences) to fill in for the gaps, but we continue to find that nothing is a substitute for family and their vital, and often reassuring, presence during a very stressful time.

It does not matter what kind of family one belongs to. I have noticed over the span of nearly four decades in hospitals that even in the most strained of family relationships, with years of conflict and bitterness, the patient still prefers to have their family beside them when the end of life may be imminent.

And if we think about that and think about our own families, we know that we all have unique relations with each of our family members and our family is usually the strongest influence in our lives.  It sets up our sense of belonging and how we identify ourselves, our names, our backgrounds. We are a compilation of generations of familial DNA.

But if we think about how a family is made strong, there are many factors that form that foundation.

The most important one is of course is love. You may instantly think of unconditional love when you think of family. It is the first source of love you receive in your life. Unconditional love is when we do not give up at the first site of imperfection. We work through the hard times; we endure in the face of unfavorable conditions. When we give unconditional love to someone, we care about the happiness of the other person and will do anything to help that person feel happiness and we do it without expecting anything in return.

We also see that loyalty strengthens a family. When you have a family, you are devoted to them. You stick by them through the hard times and you genuinely celebrate in their happy times. A family supports and backs each other. They stand up for each other in front of a third party trying to harm them.  We often hear teenagers say in defense of their younger siblings, “I can do something to them, but I won’t let you harm them”.  That is loyalty!

Families also teach us patience. It gets tough sometimes to be patient with our family members, doesn’t it? Yet we remain so out of love and respect. Thus, it teaches us patience to deal better with the world. This leads to thinking about discipline, not discipline as a punishment, rather a way that families help us in learning how to meet our needs without hurting or offending others.  For instance, when we may be angry, we learn how to keep calm and handle situations in a constructive and non-violent way.

With our family, we share the same values; values link us together with ideals like:

  • Being honest and
  • Never giving up.
  • Adding worth to the world or making the world a better place.
  • Being patient.
  • Taking personal responsibility.

All of these values can be learned as they are observed, discussed, and practiced in our families.  Of course, all of this requires that we spend time together as a family. When we spend time with our families and love each other and communicate openly, we are creating a better future for all of us as we learn to connect better with the world.

In the face of this current pandemic, many families are finding themselves with reordered priorities and unexpected time to be together.

A throw back if you will, to the nuclear family which, prior to the pandemic, had been somewhat replaced by the extended family (sports, activities, friends, school).

What a wonderful silver lining it is, that in the midst of crisis we cling to those most familiar and create ways to reconnect.

The new term social distancing is perhaps a misnomer; the better term might be physical distancing because social is what we really need most in the midst of crisis.  Using social media, text messaging, and video platforms to connect and stay connected is essential now more than ever.

Society will survive the coronavirus pandemic, not just because of improved preparedness but because we will live with a greater sense of perspective and appreciation of life’s small pleasures: from that first bite of a home cooked meal to the beauty of your loved ones to more present conversations with friends and family.

When society is facing a tremendous challenge or there is a big uptick in suffering, people tend to orient themselves in a less self-centered way and in a more family-centric way.  That is my hope for all of you!

May you and your families be safe and healthy and emerge from this crisis more generous, empathetic, and optimistic.

This article is part of the talks presented during the community event hosted by the Jewish Community of Forsyth County, titled 7 Ideas for a Better World.

Lynn Jackson is a wife, mother, and grandmother. She is the Chief Operating Officer of Northside Hospital Forsyth and an advocate for various Forsyth County community organizations.