COVID-weary Washingtonians of all backgrounds can lay aside their differences this week as our state emerges from a 15-month, multi-phase lockdown. We'll gladly mark the June 30 milestone with the rest of you, finding responsible ways to party like it's 2019.
But shame on all of us if we overlook those who endured the earliest and deadliest chapter of Washington's coronavirus outbreak, who suffered in silence and who may feel cut off from society even now, after Gov. Jay Inslee has lifted most statewide restrictions.
Seniors in long-term care settings will continue to live in something of a bubble. Masks and face shields still will be worn by staff. Loved ones remain subject to virus screenings and limits on visits, such as a ban on room guests in nursing homes and assisted-living units.
Allowing Washington's older, most vulnerable residents to languish isn't acceptable. Restoring quality-of-life elements that were stolen by the pandemic is essential.
Case in point: visits from therapy animals that provide comfort and companionship.
It's too late for one lifelong Pierce County resident who died recently after a five-year battle with dementia. Due to lockdown rules, Diane Bredeson never received the therapy animal visit that her close friend, Patricia Flynn, tried to arrange this spring. Flynn even wrote to the governor's office for help.
But it's not too late for countless others in senior care facilities.
Flynn says she doesn't blame the staff at eliseo, formerly the Tacoma Lutheran Retirement Community, where Bredeson lived two years and died June 18 at age 70.
"They have a really, really tough job taking care of these people, and everyone I ever dealt with was very kind," the Tacoma resident told us this week. "But for the people who don't have much time left — if an animal can give them comfort, why not give it a try?"
Flynn's friendship with Bredeson started more than 20 years ago when their kids dated in high school. It grew after their nests emptied and Bredeson became a widow at age 58; they hiked, took weekend outings, traveled to Europe and Hawaii.
An accountant dedicated to exercise and nutrition, Bredeson began showing symptoms around 2015 and was diagnosed with a cognitive impairment. Flynn said she fulfilled a dream of living on the Ruston waterfront for a few years, then realized she could no longer do so independently.
"She was so brave. She gave up her home, she gave up her car. Her kids didn't have to beg her to do it," Flynn said. "After that, she gave up her animals (a cat, Bobbie, and a dog, Zoey) because she knew she couldn't care for them properly.
"That was hard; she loved her animals."
The friendship continued after Bredeson moved to elisio in 2019 for a higher level of care. The first year of COVID kept them apart, and when Flynn saw her friend again for limited visits this spring, the deterioration was stunning. In her last weeks, Bredeson was extremely distraught and unable to speak.
Flynn inquired about bringing her German shepherd, Bijou, for a visit. When told that wasn't allowed, she pleaded for a therapy animal.
For the last month or so, such visits have been permissible under the governor's revised orders, an Inslee spokesman told us. But elisio officials said they're essentially rebuilding the program from scratch; it takes time to complete background checks on certified handlers, verify vaccine records for animals, and the like.
"We have not had any pets on our campus during COVID because of the lockdowns," President/CEO Kevin McFeely told us. "We're trying to open up as quickly as we can, as safely as we can."
They tried to line up a special visit for Bredeson, he said, but she died before it could be arranged.
He now says elisio should be able to bring animals back in August for both individual and group interactions — weeks earlier than originally planned.
That's welcome news, though we hope exceptions are made for residents who can't wait. Other Washington care centers should also fast-track the return of animal visitors.
There are no villains in this story, just people learning to do their jobs under agonizing, unprecedented conditions. Among the lessons of this past year is that time is precious, isolation exacts a heavy toll and nobody has borne the physical and social burden of this virus more than seniors.
They were the first victims of COVID-19. They should not be the last.