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Separated by the pandemic part 6: A new normal

The following story is the sixth of several interviews being done by Nathan Tsukroff of PortraitEFX to capture the effects of this pandemic on the people of Maine. 

At the beginning of March, “normal” was visits from family, dinner with neighbors, and outings every Wednesday to interesting places for residents at Schooner Estates throughout the greater-Lewiston and Auburn area. Then came the novel coronavirus – Covid-19.

     It’s taken a while, but tenants and residents at Schooner Estates in Auburn are getting used to a “new normal”. The facility is a Central Maine retirement community offering independent and assisted living options for senior citizens.

     For a couple of months, visits with families were only through closed windows or glass doors while talking on the telephone. Meals were served to apartments individually, and chats with neighbors took place six-feet apart from behind facemasks.

     Peggy Roberge, a three-year tenant at Schooner Estates, can now visit with a couple of family members across a newly-constructed visitors area outside the front of the building. While still wearing facemasks, she gets to enjoy their laughter and voices in person and tenants can make reservations to enjoy meals in the dining area, with seating limited to ten people.

     John Rice, Director of Operations for Schooner Estates, said he and his staff are being very careful to keep tenants and residents safe with a policy of limited guests, face masks, and proper social-distancing. Guests are required to be screened when they enter the property, to ensure they do not have signs of illness, a temperature, or recent exposure to anyone who might be ill with Covid-19. So far, this process has kept the staff, tenants and residents of Schooner Estates free from any infection with the coronavirus, Rice said.

     Roberge moved to Schooner Estates with her husband in August of 2017, after living for 15 years in a condo in Auburn. “It was time to move! This is the only place we came,” she said. Her husband died in July of 2018. 

She has a daughter, Barbara in Poland; a son, Tom, in Gray; a son, Steve, in Monmouth; and a daughter, Jan, in Bangor, whom she describes as “the fabulous four!” She has six grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren. One of her grandchildren is named after her.

     Before the pandemic, her children and grandchildren would visit in person during the week or on weekends. Roberge’s daughter would visit from Poland every Wednesday, bringing her dog named Rigby, a Labrador. “I miss the dog,” she said. “I miss the kids, too, don’t get me wrong! But the kids I visit every night on FaceTime, all on at the same time.” She connects to the internet using a hand-held tablet.

     She has gotten used to this separation, and said that while she misses the hugs from her family, she is content with the daily virtual visits. “They know I love ‘em!” she said.

     Roberge said she has fun with Rigby, with help from her daughter, who turns her computer around so Roberge can see the dog. She whistles and calls Rigby by name, and “he wiggles all over and his tail goes! He doesn’t know where I am!”

     Her grandchildren write to her via computer, with “Thank You” notes coming on paper, she said.

Before the pandemic, her daughter would take her wherever she wished and Wednesday trips by Schooner Estates “were all over the state.” After recently being allowed to take trips again, the bus is limited to five people, where before, up to fourteen could ride. 

With the pandemic restrictions, tenants are served meals in their individual apartments. Tenants also cook meals for themselves.

     “You miss the contact, the physical contact,” Roberge said. She is only allowed to hug her daughter “when she takes me to the doctor.”

     Despite the restrictions and limits on family visits, Roberge is very upbeat about her life at Schooner Estates. “This place is just fantastic. My husband lived here long enough to really enjoy himself here.” Referring to the staff, she said, “Everybody is so friendly, the food is so good. If you need something, you mention it, you got it! It’s just terrific. And even the people that live here are terrific. So, it’s just a big happy place!”

     Roberge worked for Sears for twenty-five years, starting in the financial department and then transferring to floor sales. Her husband worked at the local Coca Cola bottling plant for more than 40 years, starting as a loader and working his way up to a management position. She carries her apartment keys on a Coca-Cola neck lanyard.

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