PARIS – Not once in the long months that have passed since the start of the pandemic has Jean-François, 74, been able to leave his retirement home in eastern France to visit his daughter or sister.
In fact, the retired steelworker believes it has been two months since he last stepped outside, as nursing homes across France protected their vulnerable residents from another wave. nationwide viral infections and deaths.
Yet freedom awaits us now.
Until January 3, France welcomes residents of retirement homes for the holidays. The aim is to alleviate some of the mental suffering and loneliness of the pandemic by allowing multi-generation family reunions, which have been banned during repeated lockdowns for fear of parents becoming infected.
And so, a year full of heartache and deprivation ends with nursing home residents and their families facing the agonizing dilemma of whether a few days or hours of Christmas and New Year’s joy are worth risking their lives. . In addition to trips out of nursing homes, the three-week window of relaxed rules also allows families to visit residents of the home – including those infected with COVID-19.
On the other hand, even without the pandemic, this could be the last chance for many seniors to celebrate Christmas with their families.
Jean-François’ daughter wants him to join them around the Christmas tree. But he prefers to stay put, because the risk of infection bothers him.
“I’m very scared,” he says.
The end-of-year gift of freedom also comes with conditions: residents face a week of government-mandated solitary confinement in their rooms upon their return. Jean-François does not like this prospect. But he’s also careful not to hurt his daughter’s feelings, which is why he didn’t want to be identified by her full name to explain his preference for spending the holidays apart.
“The family is sacred,” he said in a telephone interview. “But then spending a week in total confinement in my room is a great thing. ”
“A week is not very long,” he added, “but it is extremely long for us. ”
The director of Jean-François’ house tries to limit family outings as much as possible. Lucile Grillon says some of her staff are still traumatized by the two dozen deaths they saw when the epidemic hit France head-on in March. She wants to save them and her residents more misery if she can.
She says some residents are secretly relieved that she frowns on trips outside.
The three retirement homes managed by Grillon have so far succeeded in preventing infections during the fall-winter spate of cases that have pushed the death toll in France to more than 60,000, of which nearly a third in the interior of retirement homes. During home visits, residents and their loved ones are encouraged not to touch, kiss or exchange gifts. Grillon fears that these barriers against the virus will be forgotten in family settings, with gifts and festive feasts.
From his point of view, in one of the regions of France most affected by the latest wave of infections, “it is totally irresponsible to let residents out”, says Grillon. “The virus is not going to say, ‘It’s Christmas. I’m not going to infect people. ”
In the city of Kaysersberg, in the northeast, Thierry Mouille is tortured over the government’s Christmas offer. He changed his mind again and again about whether to bring his 94-year-old grandmother, Marguerite, to share a holiday meal.
“It’s horrible,” he said. “The choice between a special Christmas visit and childbirth for a week, or several small visits on days that are not so special. ”
His grandmother lets him make the decision. He says he understands the residents who don’t want to leave; it also includes families who fear that Christmas will be the last of their loved ones and do not want to pass up this opportunity to surround them with affection for the holidays while they still can.
Many retirement homes consider vacations to be a must-have family occasion. Managers of homes stricken with cases are also hoping residents who have tested positive will have some immunity that could protect them at family reunions.
Valerie Martin lets six of her residents out on Christmas Day and has requests for four more for New Years. The house she runs on the outskirts of Lyon made headlines earlier this year when she and other staff locked themselves away with their residents for 47 days to minimize the risk of infecting them. The home remained COVID-free until November, when a resident returning from a hospital stay brought the virus with him. The house has since had 35 cases and seven deaths.
Martin says some families have begged her to lock everyone out during the holiday season, to reduce the risk of further infections.
She says it’s impossible.
“There are people who are healthy, who are not positive for COVID, and I am not going to deprive them of their families just because we are afraid of the virus,” she said. “I am always on the side of freedom for the residents.”
Jean-François Badias in Kaysersberg, France contributed.
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John Leicester, The Associated Press