Kathi Campbell, going on 79, moved into a condo for seniors after her husband died seven years ago. The retired Missoula educator remodeled it to suit her tastes, and she’s been pleased with it.
“Then eventually, you just say, ‘Well, what do I really miss?’ I really miss having a pet, and a cat I could accommodate,” Campbell said.
Campbell is a social person, and when Fall rolled around in the thick of the pandemic, she sensed she might need a pick-me-up.
“I saw winter coming ahead, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to feel the winter doldrums. I can’t see my family. I can’t spend time with my friends,’” she said.
She’d loved a big yellow tomcat she once named “Morris.”
“I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to get me another Morris.’ Well, he came to me, and his name is Chester. He’s a big knot-headed tomcat. He’s good company.”
The coronavirus pandemic upended people’s lives and livelihoods. Many people lost employment, but Campbell, who used to work at Head Start, experienced a bit of the opposite.
She’d served as the volunteer coordinator at the Missoula Senior Center and sat on its board, and when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the Senior Center needed to figure out how to safely provide meals for people who could no longer eat together in the dining room. Campbell went from being retired to working as many as 30 hours a week — for free — in order to pack lunches for seniors.
The Senior Center shifted to a grab-and-go program, and meals were free with COVID-19 relief funds from the federal government and help from Missoula Aging Services. So the Senior Center went from serving 60 meals on an average day to more than 100.
“There were people taking one for lunch and one for dinner,” Campbell said.
She rolled up her sleeves and worked, and she didn’t seem to mind. “You have to recognize that me personally, I am a people person,” Campbell said. Her regular role at the Senior Center is to be the social greeter.
“This being isolated with nothing to do would have been extremely hard on my mental health,” Campbell said.
Before the pandemic, Campbell probably saw her family once a week. She has family and grandchildren in Missoula and Kalispell, and they didn’t see her as much because they didn’t want to get her sick.
“I really miss my family … the family experiences were really hard,” Campbell said.
In the past, she’d cook up a turkey and ham for the holidays and have a dozen or so people gathered in her home. Thanksgiving and Christmas were festive occasions.
Not last year. She gathered with three other friends who were in the same situation.
“We have taken every precaution we can when we’re around together,” she said. “And we realized we were really kind of pushing our luck with this virus. But you know, it was like, man, I just can’t do this. It’s very, very mostly trying. And I have to really sympathize with people that didn’t have another alternative.”
She knows her social needs don’t sit well with all her loved ones.
“My son, he just bangs his head on the wall at how terrible I am,” she said.
But not everything was grim. Before the weather turned, Campbell and her friends still found a way to talk politics and weather.
“We would eat our lunches together on TV trays out on the tarmac of the Senior Center,” she said.
Of course, she also adopted Chester.
“You know, it was kind of like the dating game, right? I searched online. I said, ‘Hmm. What does he look like? What does he look like?’ And so I searched local first, and then I thought, I’ve got to expand my circle here,” she said.
She found Chester in the Bitterroot. She had to jump through hoops to get the approval for a cat in her senior condo, but she thinks things are changing a bit in the pandemic and maybe need to change more.
“I’m really appreciative of the fact that people are waking up to the fact that seniors really do need companionship, and oftentimes, a pet will provide that,” Campbell said. “And senior living places need to acknowledge, and not deny them, that opportunity, if they can do it.”
She and her circle of friends got even closer. They’ve spent the pandemic checking in on each other and making sure they’re in tune with each other’s lives, some trying to relocate their own parents from nursing homes or falling down and getting hurt or trying to figure out how to get vaccinated and do their taxes this year.
“We really look forward to being able to be together again as a group,” she said.
Another silver lining was the Senior Center was able to remodel its kitchen and upgrade the floor and the airflow system. Campbell said the grab-and-go system worked well too.
Gayle Carlson, head of the Montana Food Bank Network, said a lot of food pantries in the state had to make dramatic changes in their delivery models. A lot of seniors don’t have cars or access to transportation, and they could no longer eat indoors with friends.
Many places started grab-and-go programs, but food insecurity still increased last year. She said it’s hard to get data specific to seniors, but a report from the Network notes a 29 percent jump in Montanans living in food insecure homes.
“It was still a real challenge, and I think many, many seniors went hungry,” Carlson said.
Earlier this month on a day the chef cooked up pork burritos and flan, the Senior Center estimated it fed some 60 people. Campbell was there, smiling and working.
This year, she got her vaccine, and she’s looking forward to more time with her family. In the past, she’d cook beef and barely stew for them, and they would catch a movie or visit a museum. She and her granddaughter and daughter-in-law would take excursions too.
“We all like to go thrift shopping and antique shopping. We get a big charge out of that,” Campbell said.
She still sees them, but it’s not the same. It’s a short amount of time, maybe an outside encounter in the parking lot of her condo, and with fewer people. But she’s had to keep her own mental health up too.
“I know my son has gotten kind of upset with me about how social I am,” Campbell said. “But I just am. That’s who I am, and he just will have to live with it. I’ve had a good, long life, and if I do something stupid that makes me die early, then well, that’s my fault, not his.”
So she’s been willing to take some chances. “How do I keep them happy, but how do I make me happy too?”
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