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As visits resume at Gundersen St. Elizabeth's Care Center, families separated by COVID-19 reunited

As visits resume at Gundersen St. Elizabeth's Care Center, families separated by COVID-19 reunited
Friday, May 07, 2021

Family reunited at St. Elizabeth's in Wabasha


As Jadon, his wife Alissa, and their kids – two-year-old Elliot and one-year-old Azalea – made the drive from Mankato to Wabasha, excitement was in the air. Even though Azalea didn't know it yet, this was a big day. Not only was she turning one and would have a special birthday party, but she would also finally get to meet her great-grandmother, Mary Ann Witte. It was a special day for Mary Ann, too. She was turning 100.

When Azalea finally met her great-grandmother, it was through a window visit at Gundersen St. Elizabeth's Care Center – Grant Boulevard's visitation booth. But the windowpanes couldn't stop the joy from spreading. The two knocked on the window, smiled, and giggled.

Navigating new ways to stay close

"This has definitely been a year of learning new ways to communicate for everyone," Jadon Witte, Mary Ann's grandson and Azalea's father, says. "The visit on Mary Ann and Azalea's shared birthday was wonderful. We were so glad to have them meet for the first time on such a big day, especially because they share the same birthday – 99 years apart."

In April, the Minnesota Department of Health announced most residents in long-term care facilities would be able to leave the center for up to 24 hours to visit with family and friends without quarantine when they returned.

But, for more than 12 months, long-term care residents couldn't leave their care facilities. The only person they could see face-to-face, other than staff, was their one essential caregiver.

For Mary Ann, her essential caregiver was her daughter Darlene Theismann. Dar became the family contact person – scheduling video visits and Facetime calls between Mary Ann and her family members.

"I think we all see each other now more than ever before," Dar says, mentioning that her four siblings have children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren, of their own. "Our communication back and forth – texting, calling, and emailing – has enhanced our relationships and brought us all closer together."

For nearly-100-year-old Libbie, visiting via FaceTime becomes natural

The same is true for assisted living resident Libbie Hammel. Libbie – who turns 100 this summer – grew up in Long Island, New York and moved to the Midwest to attend the University of Minnesota. Libbie and her husband raised two children in St. Paul – Anne and Stephen.

"She could have been an interior designer," daughter Anne says, reflecting on their home and how Libbie decorated it. "And she was an amazing gardener. People would stop and ask who our landscaper was. Then, learning it was my mother, they'd hire her to do their own gardening."

In 1995, Libbie left the Twin Cities and bought a home in Stockholm, Wisc. When she moved into Gundersen St. Elizabeth's Senior Living in 2019, Libbie began to meet Gundersen St. Elizabeth's home health nursing staff. Nurses like Shara Fuller.

"This is the best kind of care you could ask for," Libbie says. "I feel very fortunate to live here."

"Libbie is a breath of fresh air," Shara says. "I love taking care of the senior living tenants as they can remain independent and in their apartments."

Libbie's essential caregiver was son Stephen who lives nearby. But staying connected to her daughter Anne, who lives in New York, proved a bit trickier. With help from nurses like Shara and recreation therapy staff and technology from Libbie's iPhone -- Facetime dates and regular texting kept the two close.

"Since my mother has moved into Gundersen St. Elizabeth's, we've developed a deep friendship," Anne says. "She's done incredibly well and has been incredibly content. It's a true comfort for our family to know that she's happy and cared for."

Maggie Sonnek is the community relations director at Gundersen St. Elizabeth's in Wabasha.

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