“I was a boy during the Cuban missile crisis, and we felt we were going to be blasted off the face of the Earth,” says David Speedie, who now lives in Westminster Canterbury, a large senior living complex on Pantops Mountain. Though the Cuban missile crisis was shocking, Speedie says it wasn’t as disruptive as what’s happening now. “That only lasted five or six days. [The virus lockdown] is a long, attritional process. So in a way it’s worse than that.”
Like the rest of the residents at Westminster, Speedie hasn’t been able to leave the complex in weeks. “I have a son, and daughter-in-law, and a wonderfully active and engaging 3-year-old granddaughter in Batesville,” says the former English professor. “But I haven’t seen them in a month.”
Westminster’s 450 residents have been quarantined since April 1, when a community member tested positive for COVID-19. All visitation has been stopped. Three meals a day are delivered to residents’ quarters. Public spaces like gyms are closed, and everyone has to wear a mask when they walk around within the complex. Equally stringent rules have been put in place for the staff, who have their temperature taken at the beginning and end of every shift.
Such precautions have become commonplace at senior living facilities around the country, where large numbers of vulnerable people live close together. In Fluvanna, more than 60 residents at senior living center Envoy at the Village have contracted the virus.
Like Speedie, many of Westminster’s other residents are drawing on memories of upheaval from their long lives to help contextualize this extraordinary situation. And there’s plenty to draw on.
“We have a handful of residents in their 60s, we have two or three that are over 100, but certainly plenty of World War II generation folks,” says Erin Garvey, who works in Westminster’s development and communications offices. (Speedie calls Westminster’s closely-monitored entrance “Checkpoint Charlie.”)
“One of our residents is a British woman, and she was talking about where she lived in England during the war, and her city was bombed. She was drawing lots of connections,” Garvey says.
Perhaps that wartime spirit of collective action has animated some folks in Westminster—a group of residents has sewn 700 cloth masks for the staff and their neighbors over the last three weeks. Garvey says the community has plenty of folks from the Depression era, “which is the other key event where people had to really make do. That’s why all these women know how to sew, I think.”
Ross Thomas says he’s heard tales of the Depression from his neighbors, though he doesn’t go quite that far back himself. The former engineer is now the leader of Westminster’s residents’ association.
“One of the crises that I worked on was in 2011, in Japan, when there was a 9.0 earthquake that kicked up a 14-meter tsunami wave that knocked out a nuclear facility,” Thomas says.
“That one, the damage for the most part was done in a matter of a few hours,” he says. “And here we’re dealing with something that’s probably going to run for months.”
Residents have held all manner of activities via the complex’s in-house TV system, to try to keep everyone’s spirits high. There have been flower arranging tutorials and music performances—and soon, there will be reminiscence, too.
“We have a resident group called the memoirs group,” Thomas says. “They’re going to read memoirs from earlier days. Adventures, and so forth.”
For Speedie, though, the virus crisis defies comparison. “I’m sure people have drawn some parallels,” he says, “but frankly, there is no parallel.”