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Son whisks mom away from retirement home to isolated family cabin

Hand washing stations are delivered to the Ida Culver House Ravenna retirement community on March 10, 2020. Washington state announced additional protocols for nursing homes and retirement communities to help protect the vulnerable elderly residents inside. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

What to do with mom and dad has been a question that has weighed heavily on the minds of many families as the coronavirus has hit nursing homes and retirement communities.

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For Tom Paulson, former medical and nonprofit reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and frequent guest of KIRO Nights, the decision was made quickly to remove his 93-year-old mother Connie from The Hearthstone in Seattle after residents began to come down with the virus.

“They weren’t able to test and there weren’t any cases and then suddenly there were two, and then four, so I decided I was going to take her,” Paulson said. “We are fortunate enough as a family to have a place in Idaho, and I just said we are going on a trip and heading to Idaho to self-isolate in a very isolated place.”

Paulson does not blame the retirement home, but rather the lack of available testing to the larger public. He was concerned about keeping his mom in the Seattle area as the coronavirus numbers continued to rise and were expected to do so for some time. Far away from the metro area in Idaho, the situation appears safer, at least for the time being, but there are risks, as they are two hours away from a larger town.

“I have thermometers. I make my mother take her temperature 3 times a day,” Paulson said. “If anyone gets a fever, we are out of here. We are going to go into Spokane and take our best shot, but they are already getting cases. It’s going to be tough the next couple weeks so the best trick is to isolate.”

And what does his mom think of this?

“When I first pulled her out she thought I was being pretty ridiculous and hysterical,” Paulson said. “We’re fine. We’ve had some nice weather. Mom’s reading books; there’s not a lot to do up here. If we have to go back in town, I am going to be very conscious of wiping everything down and disinfecting things.”

This isn’t the first experience with a pandemic or isolation for the Paulson family. When she was college-aged, Tom’s grandmother nearly died of the Spanish Flu. At around the same age, his mother Connie was diagnosed with tuberculosis and confined to a sanitarium for nearly three years.

“When I was in college, six to seven of us students had to go to the TB sans in the space of five years,” she remembered. “We figured it was from the fellows who were all coming home from the service at that time.”

Tom Paulson marveled at the approach his mother and her generation took to such adversity.

“She had TB when she was a young woman, in a sanitarium, in isolation for almost 3 years. Her mother got Spanish flu and almost died. ‘We got sick, then we got better.’ Kind of a lackadaisical view, ‘eh?”

As he takes care of his mother now, Paulson continues to monitor the situation in Washington. While pointing out that he believes the opportunity has been missed to attempt to contact trace and contain the virus through testing, he is encouraged that Gov. Inslee has given the “Stay at Home” order.

“I think it is going to help,” he said. “The best bet is going to be, unfortunately, to do the highly disruptive, economically damaging shelter in place. Unfortunately, that is our best bet because had we been more on the ball, and this is mostly a federal policy failure, not locally, I think the local folks have been doing great, I just think we would have been in better shape.”

So what does he believe the coming months will look like?

“The virus is going to spread widely and I think most people are going to be exposed to it, maybe not within the next month but the next year,” Paulson said. “I think case numbers are going to go up dramatically, which they already are. I still think my perspective on the fatality rate is somewhat accurate that it will be close in this country to what South Korea experienced, but it is going to get lost for a while because the numbers are going to go up so dramatically.”

“We will see if this follows the path of normal viruses in that it diminishes as we head into spring and summer, but I think the biggest trick is are we going to be ready if it comes back in the fall because it probably will,” he added. “I think this virus is now here to stay, there’s no getting away from it, most of us are going to be exposed to it, and the trick now is going to be how do we manage it? So far, for the richest country on the planet, we haven’t done a very good job of managing it and I am hoping we don’t just have to run off. I feel very fortunate to have this place in Idaho to take my mom because a lot of people don’t have that. It’s heartbreaking for me to think about all the people I know that she knows, friends at Hearthstone that I think are at great risk. … I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better, I guess is the bottom line.”

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With all of her life experience, Connie looks at it a little differently.

“It will pass,” the 93-year old said. “It won’t be forever.”

Listen to KIRO Nights weeknights from 7 – 10 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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