Music and NPR News for Central and Northern Michigan
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Health, Science and Environment

Northern Michigan couple saw the worst of COVID-19 among elderly

Noelle Riley

As COVID-19 spread, it devastated the older generation, especially at nursing homes and the veteran community.

Some people say they will never unsee what they experienced, as they lost friends and held family members who passed from the virus.

Scott and Tina Schwander, who serve northern Michigan in various forms, saw many pass away from the virus.

He’s an elder of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. He’s also a retired sheriff’s deputy and volunteers for veterans throughout a seven county region.

Tina works for a nursing home, although she declined to say which one.

They both know the devastating effects COVID-19 has on senior citizens.


“My wife would agree, it’s just heartbreaking to watch a person just disintegrate into nothing, looking at their loved ones through a window is not the same as being able to hug them and touch them. We lost a lot of good people through the glass,” Scott said. 


Scott is what tribal members call a “baby elder.” He’s 58, and officially became an elder at 55. 


Much of his work is with veterans through the Grand Traverse Area Veterans Coalition. 


He’s not a veteran but has family members that were.


“My draw to that is that my great, great grandfather was a civil war sharp shooter in an all Native American unit,” he said.


When COVID-19 hit, Scott saw an uptick in veteran deaths, many related to COVID and some related to old age and isolation.


“A lot of the honor guards, say from American Legion or the VFW, seemed to intensify, and sometimes there were three or four funerals a week,” he said.


It was a different type of fight than they had on the battlefield, he added.


“These people had fought so hard to stay strong, and they did so up until the last moment, until they physically gave out until they could fight no more,” Scott said.


Tina saw it too, but through a caregivers’ eyes. The adult-care facility she works at can house more than 120 patients. She said many got coronavirus. 


“Our facility had a COVID unit. We actually opened up the COVID unit to take patients from local hospitals, even as far as downstate, so if we had COVID patients they would go to the COVID unit that was completely blocked off from the rest of the facility,” she said.


And, because family and friends weren’t allowed to visit due to the lockdown, seniors relied on caregivers for companionship.


“We were the ones that were there, holding their hand and rubbing their head and telling them ‘it’s ok to go.’” That’s a burden health care workers took on and will carry with them,” Tina said.


Although nurses and Certified Nurse Assistants tried to ease the pain when someone was about to pass, Tina said, it just wasn’t enough.


“Nothing takes away that pain or despair that you can’t be around your family,” she said.


For months and months, seniors had to stay in their rooms — even during meals — to prevent infection. 


But they still found ways to communicate.


“There were patients who would sit in their doorways and interact from one side of the hallway to the other, so that was nice,” she said.


The community dining room is still closed and residents continue to eat in their rooms.


But visitors are now allowed, and like most places, various protocols are followed. 


“All visitors that come in have to be tested. We have rapid testing,” Tina said.

If they’re COVID free, they can sit in an enclosed room with their elderly loved one.  


And, Tina said smiles are starting to appear on residents’ faces again.

“It’s definitely improved a lot of the spirit in these people, because it’s something they haven’t had in over a year,” she said.


Tina and Scott also reflect on friends they lost to COVID-19 who weren’t veterans or in assisted living. Tina remembers one friend in particular.


“She was just as active as you and I, and then she caught COVID and then within just a matter of a few days, she had passed. You just feel like, you know she was robbed for several years still,” Tina said. 


They’re both cautiously optimistic about restrictions being lifted in various forms. Scott still worries. 


“I don’t think the world has really recovered yet. I don’t think we’re even 50 percent there even though restrictions are lifted,” Scott said.


Both of them are fully vaccinated, and they look forward to warmer weather when veterans and nursing home residents can gather outside. 


They also feel strongly about rebuilding community engagement and talking to those who need companionship.


“Your life goes on and is very busy, but your loved one that’s in a nursing home, their life ain’t all that busy. They’ve got all kinds of time. No matter the space between you and your loved one, communication is key, you’ve got to communicate with them,” Tina said.


Most of all to let them know they are Not Forgotten.


Not Forgotten music was composed by Andy Middlemiss.

Related Content