More than 100 people filled the dining hall at Ararat Nursing Facility to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Children and grandchildren hugged their loved ones. Friends in wheelchairs sat side by side chatting in Armenian. Residents rose from their seats to dance to “Hey Jan Ghapama,” an Armenian song written on a plate of stuffed pumpkin.
At one of the tables in the Mission Hills nursing home, Anahit Papiryan, 82, danced the best she could from her wheelchair, raising her hands in the air and turning them side to side. ‘other. Sometimes she would kiss the hand of her granddaughter Ruzanna Grigoryan.
“You are the light of my life,” Papiryan told the 34-year-old in Armenian. Papiryan, originally from Yerevan, immigrated to the United States over 30 years ago.
“You are my heart,” replied Grigoryan, who wore a blue surgical mask to keep his grandmother safe.
The Thanksgiving scene was far from last year, which consisted of limited exterior visits and calls behind windows to protect vulnerable nursing home residents amid a wave of COVID-19 cases.
Gone is the COVID unit that once held dozens of people and with it the darkness that followed the deaths of 36 residents and two staff. A resident has not tested positive in Ararat since December 20, according to Margarita Kechichian, the facility’s executive director.
“During the pandemic, there was no life. These walls were dead walls and there was no life here. There was only isolation, there was only fear and sadness, no happiness at all, ”said Susan Yeranyan, Director of Clinical Services. “Today, compared to last year, it is proof that we are coming back to life … Last year, we did not have the chance to celebrate, to say thank you and to ‘have fun.
In Ararat, 96% of residents and 100% of staff are vaccinated. Administrators estimate that about 70% of residents have received booster shots.
Statewide, 88% of nursing home residents and 94% of staff are vaccinated, according to government data.
Despite high vaccination rates, some experts fear the holidays could spark new epidemics as immunity wanes.
“We did not get out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination… we have to remain vigilant,” said Dr. Michael Wasserman, former president of the California Assn. of Long Term Care Medicine, which represents doctors, nurses and others working in nursing homes. “If you are visiting a loved one in a nursing home, know how you are living your life in the face of the pandemic. “
Nursing homes have been the zero point of the pandemic in the United States, suffering a staggering proportion of deaths from COVID-19. As of Monday, there were 9,343 COVID-related resident deaths at skilled nursing facilities in California.
To fight the disease, nursing homes have closed, cutting off residents’ access to family and friends for their protection. Visits only started to return to normal this year, as the number of vaccinations increased.
While Wasserman has said he supports opening visits to residents of nursing homes “who have suffered the brunt of the virus,” he worried about what the holidays might bring as family and friends were meeting inside.
He pointed to a winter wave last year that killed thousands of nursing home residents.
“If the virus enters a nursing home or assisted living facility with residents who have been vaccinated, the death rate should not be as high as when they were not vaccinated,” Wasserman said. “However, the death rate is not zero and it is significant. It is still a virus that the elderly do not want to catch.”
Ararat Nursing Facility takes no risk.
More than a dozen signs warn visitors even before entering, reminding them to wear a mask, practice social distancing and not to enter if they have felt sick in the past 48 hours. There is no entry without proof of vaccination or negative test performed within 72 hours. Staff members are tested weekly.
Earlier this week, residents had their first Thanksgiving celebration with music, dancing and a COVID-19 test for the singer before his entry.
“It was almost normal,” said Kechichian, the establishment’s executive director. “It was really cool.”
By 10 a.m. Thursday, more than 100 residents had gathered in the facility’s largest dining room, where fall leaves adorned the walls, for the second celebration. On the table, crystal glasses were filled with orange napkins, and each person had a slice of wrapped apple pie in front of them.
Some women had blankets over their knees and shawls over their shoulders for warmth. Everyone except the residents wore masks.
As part of a cooking class to mark the festivities, Marina Terteryan pulled out a pumpkin to make Ghapama, a traditional Armenian dish. The 37-year-old planned to stuff it with rice, dried apricots, plums and raisins, as well as walnuts, almonds and pecans.
Although some families cook the dish in their homes, Terteryan said it is not as popular among the younger generations of Armenians. There is even a pop song written on the plate, “Hey Jan Ghapama”.
“It’s all my kind of mission to bring light to the stories of ancient Armenians and to be a bearer of culture for these types of traditions,” Terteryan said. “It is really important for me to rediscover this tradition and to get people excited about it.”
Kechichian estimates that around 90% of the residents of the house are Armenians. The remaining 10%, she laughed, are “Honorary Armenians”. In the lobby there is both an Armenian flag and an American flag.
Lily Savadian had tears in her eyes as she took a video of residents and staff dancing hand in hand. Savadian was visiting his 96-year-old mother, who has lived in Ararat for over 10 years.
Staff, she said, hugged residents “just like their grandparents, just like theirs.”
“They made it a home for them,” Savadian said, his voice shaking. “There are so many reasons to be thankful. “
Residents Council President Siranouche Haladjian vividly remembers last Thanksgiving when she ate turkey alone in her room. This year, her son had planned to pick her up so that she could celebrate the holidays with the family.
“For so many months we were stuck in our rooms and did not leave for safety reasons,” the 88-year-old said. “It’s wonderful now because I can have visitors. My children and grandchildren can come.
After the pumpkin was smeared with butter and ready to bake, Yeranyan thanked Terteryan for the class and wished the residents “Happy Thanksgiving.”
Soon, staff members would bring the residents platters of turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberries and salad.
“Thanksgiving is a day to thank God and for all that we have. We are still alive, ”Yeranyan told residents. “We have to be thankful for this. “
At a corner table, Victor Gorgy unwrapped a cooler filled with his mother’s favorite dishes: Greenland Istanbuli cottage cheese, pita bread and chocolate mousse cake.
The 59-year-old felt particularly grateful, after his mother survived a COVID-19 attack last year. Her oxygen levels fell so low that she was hospitalized for four weeks.
“But she’s great now,” he said, looking at Josephine Berzy, 89, with a smile.
When Papiryan was done dancing, Grigoryan called his mom, aunts and cousins on FaceTime so they could say hello. Papiryan, who sometimes kissed the phone, told her family not to worry about her and that she was safe and happy.
Sometimes Papiryan, who suffers from dementia, thought his family was back in Armenia. They periodically reminded him of everyone’s name and who they were.
“It’s bittersweet because she’s not home with us,” Grigorian said. “But I feel safe and happy because I know how well the nurses take care of her.”
Before the family hung up, Papiryan handed the camera a glass full of apple juice – a gesture of holiday cheering.