April 6, 2020
Cut off from the world, Ann and Gene Preaus find comfort in routines.
From the outside, the situation seems bleak: a deadly virus that kills the elderly at a faster rate runs rampant inside a nursing home. And on many levels the outlook is bleak. The elderly are vulnerable, and nursing homes have become hotbeds of the new coronavirus across the world.
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In New Orleans, Lambeth House has made local and national headlines where, as of April 5, 53 residents have tested positive and 15 have died from COVID-19. It is one of 47 nursing home facilities in Louisiana identified by the Department of Health as a coronavirus cluster.
But from the inside of the largest cluster in the state, Ann and Eugene “Gene” Preaus are holding strong — even as close friends and neighbors die around them. As residents of Lambeth House’s independent living area, they’ve rarely left their 7th floor apartment since the facility went on lock down on March 11, a day after management announced its first resident had tested positive for COVID-19.
“Lambeth House is a close community, but it is what it is,” Gene, 78, a retired lawyer, says, speaking to Nola Boomers by telephone. His tone is matter-of-fact, reflecting a wait-and-see kind of attitude.
“We’re in the best possible place,” Ann, 76, a retired tour guide, adds. “We don’t feel jailed. [Lambeth House] takes very good care of us.” Her voice is more cheerful. She’s optimistic.
Days Gone By
“I’m pretty sure I was exposed.”
They spend their days cooking, reading, cleaning, solving jigsaw puzzles, and listening to music — ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll and classical. Meals are delivered daily, but the only visitor is a nurse who takes their temperature. When they do leave, it’s only to the elevator lobby on their floor to dispose of trash, check the mail, or to pick up supplies delivered by the front desk. Updates are slipped underneath the door by management.
Because of HIPAA restrictions, updates never mention which of their neighbors are sick or have died. Ann and Gene usually find out while watching the news.
No one from the outside is permitted, so the Preaus’ youngest daughter, Virginia Barba, drops off groceries, homemade dishes, and pound cake (her father’s favorite) about twice a week. Her temperature is also taken at the gate.
Gene, in particular, has been extra careful. He has left the apartment only four or five times in two weeks. He wears a face mask and diligently washes his hands. In January, Gene spent four nights in the hospital recovering from respiratory syncytial virus, a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms, but can be serious for infants and older adults. He’s worried that he’s already been compromised enough.
In the days before Lambeth House went into quarantine, Gene had dinner with his best friend. He complained of a fever and later tested positive for the coronavirus. The pastor at Gene’s Bible study the same week also tested positive.
“I’m pretty sure I was exposed,” he says.
Gene passed the 14-day incubation period with no symptoms.
At Least We Have Each Other
“It’s the best they can do right now.”
Those who haven’t tested positive are allowed to leave their apartments, even ride their bikes in the parking lot if they want. But they cannot step outside the property gates. Fellow residents only nod hello to each other from 6 feet away as they pass by. Gene and Ann do talk regularly to other residents by phone or text, but the conversations are brief but supportive.
“We try to comfort them, especially if their wife or husband has died,” Gene says. “We feel the worst for single people. They’re so isolated; at least we have each other.”
Ann was born in Mexico City, but her mother is from New Orleans. Gene grew up in Farmerville, Louisiana, just northwest of Monroe, which he jokes is so small that they’ve probably been spared from the outbreak so far — it has not.
In 1963, Gene moved to New Orleans to attend law school. In 1967, Gene and Ann met and then married a year later. Fifty-two years on, they’re isolated from their three children and seven grandchildren.
Their oldest two children live in Colorado and Ohio with their families. Virginia, a teacher at Metairie Park Country Day School, and her two children, Adele and Field, teenagers, live near Lambeth House. The grandchildren visited their grandparents often before the outbreak. A resident they’ve come to know was one of the 15 who have died, but Virginia says they’re taking the loss in stride.
Now, Adele and Field sometimes ride their bikes to the levee and call their grandparents. Ann and Gene will step out onto their small balcony that overlooks the levee for an almost face to face conversation. It’s the best they can do right now.
“When will this end?”
The last time Virginia saw her parents was March 7 when they all went out to dinner, but she’s confident she’ll see them again. She isn’t worried that they’ll get sick.
“Should they leave; should they stay,” Virginia says about her and her siblings discussing whether or not their parents should move out of Lambeth House during the early days of the outbreak. “We just decided that they’d be safer there. Lambeth House has done a good job in communicating with us.”
The only things she does worry about are her parents’ spirits and the uncertainty of everything.
“When will this end?” she asks.
Back at the apartment, it seems like Ann and Gene could keep this up forever if they had too.
“It’s a good thing we like each other, or we would have killed each other,” Ann says. “We keep up our routines. I’m a night owl and he’s a morning person so we both get time to do what we like. We’re very compatible.”
Solace in Isolation: Voices From Lambeth House was written by Tim Meyer.