Keeping out or moving in – a COVID love story for the ages

When coronavirus started shutting up aged care homes around the United States, 93 year old Jack Eccles moved in. Gerry, his wife of 70 years, is living with Alzheimer’s and Jack decided that if this is how he could be with her, then that’s how it’s going to be. 

With more than 70,000 deaths so far in American aged care facilities, the decision to lock down Gerry’s North Carolina aged care facility was one deemed a necessary precaution. So, on March 12th, when Jack arrived at the home as usual to spend the day with his wife, he was turned away. Refusing to be kept apart from her, he returned the following day, suitcases in tow. 

“We’re married. I want to be with her. She took care of me for 70 years, and now it’s my turn,” he said, speaking to the Wall Street Journal. 

Hillcrest Convalescent Centre in Durham, North Carolina agreed to rent Jack a single room in their assisted living facility so he could continue to visit with Gerry three times a day and continue to care for her. He isn’t allowed to walk around the facility, except to go to Gerry’s room where he feeds her, and sometimes to the lobby where he can see his family through the window. For the last 5 months, Jack has been mostly confined to his room, with little to no sunlight. But he says he won’t be moving out until Hillcrest reopens to visitors. 

Worried that Gerry would refuse to eat if he wasn’t there to help her, Jack was concerned that he may never see his wife again if he didn’t make the move. Despite the concerns of their children, they knew it was the right thing to do. 

“They were never apart,” says Genece McChesney, one of their nine children. 

With tens of thousands of aged care residents cut off from their family and friends, the effects of loneliness and isolation are being felt around the US. According to federal health officials, at least 15,000 more Americans have died from Alzheimer’s or dementia over their spring than would have been expected otherwise. Many of these occurred in aged care facilities, with doctors believing that the disruptions to their usual routines and social interactions playing a large part in the sudden health declines of residents living with memory loss. 

For Gerry, the presence of Jack and the continuation of their daily routine has been essential to her wellbeing. Staff at Hillcrest have attested to the benefits of Jack’s presence on Gerry, noting that his constant efforts have had a huge impact on her health. 

“That’s something we can’t do. We haven’t been with her for 70 years,” said Olivia Jacobs, a Hillcrest dietitian.

“He’s always having a good day, he’s always happy to see her.…He’s with his love, and that’s where he wants to be.”

July 16th proved a very important day for the pair. Sitting in the lobby at the large front windows, Jack and Gerry had a Zoom call with eight of their nine children, and some of their 20 grandchildren and 24 great grandchildren. With their daughter Roberta and her husband setting up an iPad outside the window, the couple shared a cake as they celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary together. Smiling and waving to their large family, the couple sat together with a photo of their wedding alongside them, their family looking on as they sat and celebrated for about an hour. 

When aged care staff came to help pack up, Jack bid their family good night, telling them that he loved them before wheeling Gerry back to her room. During the call, Jack had leant towards Gerry and got his family’s attention. 

“Mommie said something. I’m sure it was, ‘I love you guys.’” 

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