CHICO, Calif. – You could call it a lifetime of love. Billy Heron and his wife, Barbara, have been married for 67 years. Now, at age 93, Heron is a caregiver to his 87-year-old wife.
Heron says he looks back over their life together and realizes how lucky he was to find her; a woman he describes as unique.
The couple lives together at home, with Heron doing as much as he can to care for his wife. She has had several strokes and suffers from diabetes as well as dementia. He also turns to additional hired caregiving staff to meet her needs.
Action News Now Morning Anchor Julia Yarbough recently spent time talking with Heron about the challenges of caregiving and how the Covid-19 pandemic amplified his situation.
Heron says early in 2020, he thought his wife might be better cared for at an assisted living facility. His wife remained in facility care for several months, but Heron says the experience was less than what he had hoped it would be.
“The care was always imperfect,” explained Heron. “I knew she needed an advocate in many ways. I had to micro-manage things, like the meds.”
Then Covid-19 emerged. In addition to the concerns, Heron says he already had with his wife’s care, the pandemic heightened his worries. He says he feared reduced and staff stretched-thin, which meant his wife was not getting the attention she needed for daily care.
“The fact that I could already see problems in the care situation, I knew that if any disease got in there, things could happen fast. You see the weakness in the systems and so you say, if we get a disease in here, it’s going to take off,” said Heron.
Heron is no stranger to infectious disease and how a virus works. He spent his career as a veterinary epidemiologist. He likens the situation, to something many in California are familiar with.
“It’s like a forest fire. If you have lots of trees that are dry and close together. You’ve got all that fuel but here the fuel is the patients; the residents.”
And across the country, senior care facilities have offered plenty of fuel for the deadly nature of covid-19. AARP recently created a covid-19 dashboard to track the number of staff and client deaths within nursing homes and long term care facilities across the country.
As of December, the dashboard tracked more than 100,000 deaths of seniors in the United States.
Dr. Toni Miles is a leading epidemiologist at the University of Georgia. She says this year, most of her work has been in nursing homes, in which 40% of the deaths in the United States have occurred.
Dr. Miles studies not only disease but also its impacts on bereavement and how our society faces and deals with death. She says for as great a loss as the senior deaths are, the impacts go far beyond the numbers of elders who have died.
She says there is a ripple impact; that for each of those who have died, there are roughly nine other people in their lives who must now face the realities covid-19 has created.
She says those impacts are felt not only by the caregivers caring for seniors but also, other family members and especially younger individuals who may, in many cases, now be left without a parent or grandparent.
“Each of those seniors may have a spouse, or a friend, or a caregiver who have been injured by the death of that senior,” explains Dr. Miles. “We don’t spend enough time thinking about the volume of people in the community who have lost someone. Covid has shown us the size of the population that is in this fragile state.”
Dr. Miles created a bereavement guide; a tool to help those suffering from loss.
Fear of covid-19 led Heron to bring his wife back home. Based on his years of work with infectious disease, he has this lesson for others as the battle against coronavirus continues.
“These viruses are wildly creative. They, like we, will do whatever necessary to survive. So we just have to stay one step ahead of them.”
Heron is not alone in the challenges of caring for an aging loved one. California’s senior population is projected to explode over the next ten years. The state recently unveiled its Master Plan for Aging, providing a roadmap for how agencies, business and individuals can begin addressing health care, housing, transportation, social services, and caregiving, to meet the needs of an increasingly older state population.
*This story was produced with support from the Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations, and the RRF Foundation for Aging*