Bluff Haven residents survive COVID among friends

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Gloria Thompson, Lois Harwood and Mary Lou Garnsworthy are all tenants at the Bluff Haven assisted senior living apartments in Prairie du Chien. They say they made it through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic together, even if it kept them 6 feet apart at times. (Photo by Correne Martin)

By Correne Martin


When the coronavirus pandemic started last spring, residents at Bluff Haven Assisted Living were unsure what to expect. 

They knew that, as “a family,” they would get through it somehow, together. 

Three joyful tenants of the apartments at the Prairie du Chien residential facility were glad they were living at Bluff Haven during COVID-19 and all its uncertainty.

In fact, residents Lois Harwood, Mary Lou Garnsworthy and Gloria Thompson shared that their year of isolation wasn’t bad at all. Each of them have lived at Bluff Haven for several years.

“We could visit, as long as we were 6 feet apart,” Lois said. “I’m happy I was here and not in my own home, all alone.”

Gloria pointed to the daily activities offered at Bluff Haven that helped her pass time. “We have a lot of activities here. I don’t think we thought we were going to be in [quarantine] for so long, but our activity director is so wonderful.”

Of course, being separated from family was the hardest—other than window visits and phone calls. 

Mary Lou thanked God for her family, who, like others, went above and beyond to show their loved ones knew they were thinking about them. 

The day COVID-19 caused a lockdown of the Bluff Haven and Prairie Maison Nursing Home skilled nursing facilities, operated by Community Health Services (CHS), it was Mary Lou’s 89th birthday. She had been out and about with family, as was Lois that day. But when they returned to the facility, they learned that wasn’t going to be allowed again for quite some time due to a new no-visitors policy.

“We all took it very seriously,” Lois said, sharing that COVID-19 was a lot like polio in that people weren’t sure where it originated.

“We followed the rules,” Mary Lou added. “We knew what polio could do to us (paralysis), but we didn’t know what this would do.”

Among these “rules” were many changes the trio of women, and their fellow residents, simply adjusted to and accepted as their new way of living. 

For instance, the dining hall was divided and seating spaced apart. No entertainment, like music or other public presentations, was allowed at CHS’ facilities. Church services could only be watched and barely heard through their windows on occassion or otherwise seen on TV. Window chats with loved ones originally began through screens, but they were quickly restricted to closed windows only. Bus trips for essential shopping were limited to riders sitting 6-feet apart and masks were required. 

Certainly, they admitted, these were managable modifications to their lives.

“We just did what we were allowed to do,” Lois stated.

And they washed their hands often, the women noted.

Other than not getting to see their immediate families as often, hug them, or celebrate life events with them, the most difficult change was not being able to attend funerals for their friends and loved ones—save for the few that were broadcast online.

“It made it hard to accept that [the loss] happened,” Lois explained.

Another disappointment was that they couldn’t participate in their regular ritual of playing cards. This was tough on their acuity and sociability, but doing so would have required they touch the same cards and potentially spread the virus. So, to make up for the letdown, they played games with dice where they each had their own bag of dice; and they occupied themselves with bingo, for which the cards could be wiped off between games.

“We finally played cards about a month ago,” Lois said. 

Mary Lou laughed, and commented about how she had to practically relearn how to play euchre.

“We forgot how,” Gloria added.

To help pass the time, the three women said they proudly completed a lot of puzzles to improve their minds, walked the hallways and outside by the memory garden, and got a lot of reading done. 

“I played a lot of Sudoku,” Mary Lou said. “I’d get mad, set it down and then go back after awhile.”

Gloria took the time to finish about 15 quilts during quarantine.  

Throughout the height of the pandemic, Bluff Haven residents were tested twice a week for COVID-19. Their temperatures were also taken constantly, and the workers always wore masks and personal protective equipment. According to Gloria, it was good for everyone—residents as well as staff—to learn a little discipline.

All three women remarked that they are blessed to live where they do and be looked after by Bluff Haven’s caregivers.

“Prairie du Chien is very lucky to have this place here,” Lois observed. 

“They’re really particular and they take good care of us. I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” Mary Lou declared.

Hearing her, Gloria cheerfully responded, “Just think, you wouldn’t have met me.”

Now, residents and staff are weeks past receiving both doses of their COVID-19 vaccinations. Many of their family members have been vaccinated as well. Thus, restrictions are gradually lessening at Bluff Haven and Prairie Maison. Visitors are again allowed, following a screening process. It remains to be seen when and if the pandemic will fizzle out, and the continued response at CHS’ facilities will depend on how it plays out. 

For Lois, Mary Lou and Gloria, they don’t believe life will ever get back to the way it used to be pre-COVID. Yet, they are OK with that. 

They’re just happy to be aging gracefully right where they are. They’re also grateful for what they’ve learned this past year. Aside from embracing technology and Walmart grocery pickup, family and friends mean everything. 

“We don’t have much money, but we sure have fun,” Mary Lou concluded.

About the women

Lois Harwood was born in the Fourth Ward in Prairie du Chien. She was a clerk/typist at city hall in Milwaukee before she and her husband retired here.

Mary Lou Garnsworthy grew up with her parents (the Longs) owning Kembles Greenhouse, which she eventually took over in Prairie du Chien. She was also a bookkeeper at Halpin Tire for 14 years prior to retirement.

Gloria Thompson grew up in Cuba City, lived and worked as a school teacher in Beloit for 36 years and then retired with her husband in Wauzeka.

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