“Do they even know I’m here?” Those fighting dementia don’t have visitors anymore

In the Netherlands, people are not allowed to visit nursing homes anymore. Jelle Holtzapffel, writer at journalistic platform Red Pers, works at the dementia unit in a care home. “This Coronavirus is old news, we’ve already seen that!”

“No visitors today”. That is the hard message that caretakers in the dementia unit in Leiden must convey to residents in the coming weeks. And no visitors tomorrow either. The Coronavirus takes a heavy toll and residents are being isolated.

“There’s something out there that stops people from visiting, but I don’t know what it’s called,” says Mrs. M to Mrs. B. As always, Mrs. B tries her best to understand the situation: “Is it raining outside?”

In the dementia department, where I work, a sense of realization is slowly descending. Visitors have been banned here since March 15. It must be tough for the families, who I see daily, trying to make something out of their partner’s or parent’s last stages of life. I think about the wife of Mr. H, who is not allowed to come and have a coffee here. And I think about the daughter of Mrs. B., who can’t have the daily conversation with her mother about the laundry.


Credit: CC0 Public Domain


No option

Although they’re often not conscious of it, for the residents, the lack of visitors is very serious. The unrest has increased, and many miss a quiet place in their hectic everyday life. The already limited number of activities in the care home have been cancelled too. When the strict governmental measures were imposed, I immediately thought of the people in this unit. How would they have processed the news? It must have been hard, a new absurdity in their already incomprehensible lives.

Nevertheless, most seem to handle the frightening news quite flexibly. When I start a conversation about the crisis with three ladies on the couch while serving coffee, two nod in agreement. “That’s not very nice,” says one of them resignedly. “No,” says the other agreeingly.

Maybe the residents have gotten so used to living in uncertainty that the corona crisis is relatively easily added to their lists of uncertainties. Fear and confusion are two certainties here. In the meantime, our work continues almost unchanged. Working from home is not an option.


'Maybe the residents have gotten so used to living in uncertainty that the corona crisis is relatively easily added to their lists of uncertainties'

Of course the strict measures are being followed here: wash your hands until the skin gets raw and keep distance from the residents where possible. In practice, the latter is difficult with people who need help with almost everything. One man walks into the living room without pants for the third time in a row. It doesn’t make sense to ask him to dress himself again.


I have been doing this work for over half a year now. In normal times, it is a pleasant change from studying. At the end of the day, everyone is in bed and the kitchen is clean. The contrast with the endless number of academic articles to read is big. Now, it is a welcome change to sitting at home.


With Jaap van Dissels’ (the director of the RIVM Centre for Infectious Disease Control) technical briefing in the background, I peel potatoes, fry chicken sausages with lots of butter, and season the thinly sliced ​​cucumber with vinegar, sugar and salt. I’ve learned old-fashioned cooking in the last six months.


“Do we have to eat that?”


Two residents effortlessly switch their conversation topic from the crisis to my cooking skills.


Life-experience Ms. M has decided to leave her glass of orange juice untouched and comes into the kitchen to interrogate me: “But do the children know that I’m here, can’t you call them?” “We did, but they cannot come due to the virus, remember?”


“Oh yes … but do they know I’m here?”


With each small cough, the staff members concernedly look at each other. Where does your responsibility as a care home employee currently extend? What can you still do and what not?


'With each small cough, the staff members concernedly look at each other. Where does your responsibility as a care home employee currently extend?'

These are questions that concern us all. In this department the virus would have fatal consequences. Most of the residents struggle with their health and live closely together.


No matter how cliché, it is of utmost importance to stay calm and continue the work. Fortunately, the residents themselves bring some well-needed perspective. At night, we watch the news together. The virus is raging all over Europe and the measures are exceptional. Mrs. E. believes the television is disturbing her peace. She looks up from the couch.


"That Coronavirus is old news, we have already seen that."


Trusting in her life-experience, I turn off the TV.


This story was shared by Jelle Holtzapffel, a student of political philosophy at University of Amsterdam. His story originally appeared in Dutch on Red Pers, an Amsterdam-based journalistic development-platform.


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