[Editor’s Note: Janice Dean is the senior meteorologist for FOX News Channel, also serving as the morning meteorologist for the FOX & Friends morning program. She wrote about her experiences in the industry in the book Mostly Sunny: How I Learned to Keep Smiling Through the Rainiest Days. She is also the author of the Freddy the Frogcaster series of children’s books. Both her husband’s parents died of COVID-19 while living in nursing homes. She spoke to Charles Camosy about the experience.]
Camosy: It is almost too painful to think about and I wasn’t even personally involved. But you and your husband lost both his parents to COVID-19 in nursing homes during the pandemic. First, let me say how horrific this is and that I’m so, so sorry. Memory eternal! Second, can I ask how you’re seeing their deaths within the broad context of how we have treated people living in nursing homes during the pandemic?
Dean: Thank you for your kindness and support during this really difficult time, Charlie. We’re so grateful to everyone who has reached out over the last few weeks. It still feels like a bad dream, to be honest. My husband and his sister just finished cleaning out their childhood home in Brooklyn where his parents lived over 50 years and where they grew up.
That was kind of the final piece of it, but I’m not sure we’ll ever really have closure. We never had a proper funeral, his parents never received last rites and we haven’t been able to celebrate their life properly because of the pandemic. We’re hoping we can do something when life gets back to some normalcy.
With regards to nursing homes, I’m not even sure I can properly answer that either. We still have so much to learn about what went wrong. And as you know, I want answers, accountability and an investigation into how our loved ones became sitting ducks in their nursing and assisted living facilities. We wrestled for a very long time as to what the proper path was for his parents when their health began failing them.
They were both having a very difficult time in their four-story walk-up. We started out with aides coming into the apartment but there were still trips to the ER. They were stuck inside their home for most of the time. His father had health issues and dementia, so he was in and out of the hospital and rehab. We found an assisted living residence that would take both his mom and dad once his father got well enough to move in with his mom.
And then COVID-19 happened, and they both got sick and passed away within two weeks of each other and having been apart. It’s truly a nightmare. I remember praying to God that they both had someone with them in their last few minutes to hold their hands. We couldn’t be there. That’s one of the hardest parts to look back on. We weren’t there for them in their final hours. We weren’t allowed to be there.
I really sympathize with all those our age who are raising families, both working and wrestling with what to do with their elderly parents. We did for a long time. We tried to do our best to get the best possible care for them. And I believe the system failed us.
Don’t get me wrong: There are so many wonderful people in the elder care industry that really truly care for their patients. We met some of them. They’re angels here on earth. But we’ve also heard horror stories about the conditions of nursing homes, the neglect and how the whole industry is badly managed. Hopefully, the bright side of this will be that sunlight is the best disinfectant and we can improve and learn from the deadly mistakes that were made.
Who needs to be held accountable and why?
That’s a complicated answer. I think the governor bears a great deal of responsibility when it comes to the virus spreading like wildfire in the nursing homes. He sent out a mandate ordering these facilities to take COVID recovering patients for several weeks before reversing the decision. I read one nursing home said that the state gave them body bags once that order went out. That is horrendous. Advocates for elder care were sending out emails to families saying this was going to be a potential disaster in the making.
So, the nursing homes knew that this order would be a potentially deadly one. And now the governor is blaming everyone else that he can think of for his terrible policy never once admitting that his decisions were awful. He’s even blaming the nursing homes for following his own mandate.
And now seeing that they are moving the death numbers around as well. I read New York is the only state that doesn’t count the nursing home as a COVID death if they died in the hospital. That happened with Sean’s mom Dee. Even though she got COVID in her assisted living residence, it doesn’t count because she died in the hospital. It’s all very shady.
[Andrew] Cuomo isn’t the only governor that did this — The governors of Michigan and Pennsylvania did the same thing with their forcing of COVID recovering patients into elder care facilities. This should be a huge frontpage story. But it’s not. Cuomo is beloved here in New York. Many newspapers and television stations won’t cover it. That’s why I’ll keep trying to do my best to spread the word from the platform I have.
Looking in a more positive, future-orientated direction, what do you think we can do as a culture to make things better for how we treat the elderly and disabled going forward?
Well, that’s a big question and one that requires quite a bit of discussion. I think the fact that our seniors are packed into these small residences is one of the reasons why the virus spread so quickly, and there wasn’t proper PPE either. People were coming and going even though we (family) couldn’t go visit. My mother-in-law complained that no one was wearing masks or washing hands in her assisted living facility. There was no protocol.
I read recently about a nursing home in France that knew exactly what to do without any guidance from the government. The owners decided to go into complete shutdown mode. They told the families, and no one was allowed to visit and no one was allowed to leave. The people who ran it never left the building and they just stayed closed in for weeks until the numbers went down. They never had one case of COVID.
Some of these homes haven’t been maintained or cleaned properly. And this is not just in the U.S. I’m from Canada, and my mom has been sending me articles about terrible conditions in some of these places around where she lives near Toronto. It’s heartbreaking. We have to give people more incentive to work in this industry. Pay staff more, make it more accessible for people. Those who choose to get into this line of work feel like it’s a calling, and some of them do truly care about what they do. They should be rewarded.
There’s wonderful ideas about seeing a future of populations where all ages live together in a blended community – like mixing young with the old. Kindergarten centers/daycares and elder care.
And of course, the money issues. Many nursing homes operate on a razor thin profit margin. The places that care for our loved ones don’t make money. They are cutting corners at every turn, and their residents are suffering for it. There has to be changes in the healthcare system. But again, maybe out of this disaster will come changes. It’s time to put a microscope on how we take care of our aging family members.
If anyone has read your NY Times best-selling book Mostly Sunny, they already know this isn’t your first rodeo when it comes to dealing with incredibly difficult moments. What are those who may read your book likely to get when it comes to tackling their own incredibly difficult moments? Maybe especially those which have arisen during the pandemic?
I think the main thing that I’ve learned is that the challenges we go through will make us hopefully stronger in the long run, and that there are lessons to be learned in every experience. When I look at the really rough spots in my life – when the storms were raging and everything seemed to be falling apart, there were big learning moments, and the sun eventually did come out.
Sometimes the storm was meant to clear a path for a different journey. Maybe one that wasn’t originally planned. I hope when this pandemic is over, we remember the things that were important. Our family, our friends and taking things one day, one breath at a time. Also, being thankful for the small things. A bike ride, morning coffee, a wave to a neighbor. I’ve had some very beautiful moments of clarity and being grateful to be alive.
You and I both grew up as Gen X Catholics in North America and so share that bond. What role has your faith played throughout all of this?
Trusting that there is a higher power through all of this has been such an important thing for myself and my family. When my husband’s parents died, we told our kids that their grandparents were now in heaven. They were in a beautiful, wonderful place where they no longer had pain or discomfort, and they were together again.
We had so much love from our church, and our friends in the Catholic community that reached out and supported us, asked us if we needed anything. Even though Sean’s parents lived in Brooklyn, our parish and other parishes that had heard about our loss added their names to the Sunday services.
Our kids have also been very involved in our Church and Catholic upbringing. My youngest son Theodore asked his classmates to pray for him and his grandparents when they died. It was really quite something to see him request that and it was comforting to us, and hopefully to him. Prayer has helped me through very dark moments during this time.
Psalm 34:18 The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. That particular verse has helped me through. And for that I am grateful.