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As Retirement Community Waits Out COVID, Residents Stay Positive

Jim Weber/Daily Memphian

Nursing homes and retirement communities across the country have been particularly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. That's true here in Memphis, with more than 40 confirmed deaths at multiple locations. But while reports may seem bleak, some residents feel as if they are in good hands and safe spaces.

This story was adapted by WKNO in collaboration with the Institute for Public Service Reporting and the Daily Memphian.

Dr. Jerry Francisco is one of them. 

Like it or not, the 87-year-old retired medical examiner will be remembered for two things: performing the autopsy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, and nine years later, supervising the autopsy of Elvis Presley. Both events would produce theories and speculations about what really happened behind the curtain. 

"The world loves a conspiracy," says Dr. Francisco. "It's a lot more fun to have a conspiracy than to have the truth."

These days Dr. Francisco is happy to pull back the curtain on one facet of the current pandemic: how it's affecting lives in his retirement home, the Village at Germantown. 

Five residents have died there, all in the facility's skilled nursing unit. But Dr. Fransisco says the mood is, in fact, "terrific."

Residents at the home say they're worried less about safety and more about the future. 

"What is this new world going to be like for my children and grandchildren?" wonders P.D. Miller, who moved into the facility three years ago with his wife, Mary. 

At 81, Miller is losing his vision. Mary is in a wheelchair. But the retirement community keeps him active.

"I work out daily," he says. "Before they closed the gym down there, I would use the weight machines, and I had took tai chi, and my wife took tai chi."

Those activities came to a halt in March. Outside visitors were banned. The gyms and dining rooms were closed. But even with those safety measures, the coronavirus hit home. 

"One of our caregivers tested positive and had some symptoms," Miller said. "So they quarantined us in our room and for two weeks we could not physically leave our apartment. It's like everybody here is in jail, but we were not only in jail, we were in solitary confinement for two weeks."

Other facilities in Shelby County have fared worse. More than four in ten COVID deaths here have occured in long-term care homes. Across Tennessee, more than 100 have died in these facilities. 

The Village at Germantown administration has mounted a well-organized social distancing program.

For self-described "people person" Carolyn Malish, that hasn't been easy. But she'd rather be locked down in the community with her husband than living elsewhere.

"We're in a place that is relatively safe," she says. "More than it would have been if we'd been in our own house having to take care of things."

Though retired, Malish is the longtime music director at the Church of the Holy Spirit. With her music gig on hold, she, like others have sought other ways to reach out or perform. The Village has it own closed circuit cable television channel and livestreaming over the Internet. On Easter Sunday, a small service was held in the chapel and broadcast to other residents. 

There were a few technical glitches, but in a time when normal still seems far away, this was as close as it gets for Malish.

"Even if there's only six people sitting in the room, it was wonderful to do that music again," she says. "It was the highlight of my being quarantined."

As the rest of the country steadily reopens, the lockdown is slowly easing at the Village at Germantown, too. The biggest worry there is not so much the virus; it's what the virus means for the future.