Back in the days before COVID-19 became a household word, George Nettleton would go to the gym every day, where a frequent part of his workout was trading jokes with one of the fitness professionals. While the pandemic put an end to those face-to-face workouts, Nettleton figured it didn’t need to put an end to the laughs.
Soon, he was emailing his daily jokes, or leaving little cartoons at the door for the staff who delivered meals to his home at Willow Valley Communities — just a little something to lift spirits first thing in the morning. Not surprisingly, more and more people decided they could use that little lift, and Nettleton now has about 50 residents and staff members on his daily email list.
With five file folders full of material — some of it funny, some thought-provoking — he isn’t about to run out any time soon.
“What’s the use of a collection if you don’t share it,” says Nettleton, 79. “This is something that’s kept me going. When people write back and say thank you, that gives me a lift as well.”
Nettleton is one of many Lancaster County seniors who have found a silver lining in the cloud of COVID-19, whether it’s helping others, finding a new purpose, learning a new skill or revisiting an old one, or simply accomplishing a longtime goal.
Here are just a few:
Virtual guitar lessons
After retiring four years ago, Susan Doyle, 74, decided to fulfill a longtime goal of playing the guitar. She began taking lessons close to home from Eric Dieter of Quarter Bend Guitar Studio and continued with lessons after moving to Homestead Village. Quarter Bend Guitar Studio uses a collaborative approach to teaching guitar, offering lessons in a group setting. When COVID-19 hit Lancaster County, all that changed, and Doyle changed right along with it. Quarter Bend pivoted to virtual guitar lessons on Zoom, providing a student portal on its website, access to a computer program to aid in collaborative recordings, and opportunities for students to grow in music appreciation and theory.
“Guitar has been a great outlet for me during the lockdown,” Doyle says. “It’s been a wonderful diversion and allowed more time to focus on my goals.”
When Fred Kiemle, 86, moved to Landis Homes from South Carolina, he brought a grand piano with him that found a new home in the community’s auditorium. Kiemle worked in sales most of his life, but the piano remained an occasional hobby that stuck with him since his first lessons in the second grade. During the pandemic, he found himself tickling the ivories in the auditorium more often — and attracting a small, mask-wearing audience. Soon, Landis Homes was asking him to perform regularly on the community’s closed-circuit TV channel so all 875-plus residents on campus could enjoy. His repertoire includes old standards, Broadway hits, show tunes and other songs that were popular in his youth. He’s also done a variety of themed concerts, from spirituals and hymns to movie songs.
“Since I started doing these programs, I’ve had to practice more,” Kiemle says. He’s also had to put some thought and planning into what he will perform, since he’s no longer playing simply for his own pleasure. “It’s good for me. It gives me a project. I’m a great believer that music is very, very good for the soul, for our well-being, so hopefully when I play these old songs they will help people remember the good old days, before the pandemic.”
Music from the balcony
Like Fred Kiemle, Joyce Drake, 84, says she didn’t play the piano nearly enough before COVID-19. Nevertheless, her piano, a gift from her husband, has followed her from one home to the next, from New Jersey to Tennessee. Last year, it followed her back to Pennsylvania when she moved to The Woods Apartments at Moravian Manor Communities. When the pandemic hit, another resident asked Drake to open the deck doors of her second-floor apartment so others could hear her play.
“It gave me great purpose every day to plan a daily ‘concert’ of classical, Broadway and what I call my ‘COVID music,’ ” she says, referring to her folder of uplifting songs, from “Put on a Happy Face” to “The Impossible Dream.” Drake’s hour-long, mid-afternoon concerts drew an audience of passers-by who would stop and applaud.
“I do believe it got me through those first weeks when our social contact was very limited and we were scared,” Drake says. “It helped me as much (or more) than it helped the residents of Moravian Manor Communities.”
A playwright and author, Sandy Asher, 77, has written over 20 books for young readers, including six picture books. She also works with local schools and libraries to coordinate programs that encourage literacy, often with the help of her registered therapy dog, Gracie, who listens to children read. As schools and libraries closed and children remained in isolation, Aaron’s Acres extended a COVID-inspired invitation to Asher to share videos of herself reading her picture books, with one additional requirement — the videos had to include Grace the Reading Dog, since kids would likely relate more enthusiastically to animals than to authors.
“I figured out how to do that, and even managed to upload the videos to my own YouTube channel,” Asher says. “Quite a challenge to deal with the camera, read the story and show the illustrations, all around the dog’s ever-moving head and the occasional appearance of (her other pet) Friday Cat as well.”
A Montessori school in Michigan, Prime Stage Theatre in Pittsburgh and Lancaster Public Library also have shared the videos online.
Isolation art challenge
Barb Baxter, 75, a watercolor artist, accepted a 14-day Isolation Art Challenge on Facebook at the outset of the pandemic and created 13 paintings over the 14 days. Since then, she’s done additional art challenges with a group of women with whom she traveled to Italy for a watercolor workshop several years ago. Baxter’s “painting tribe” includes five women from four states. They call themselves “Tuttis,” inspired by an Italian toast between friends sharing a meal.
“Our Tutti Challenges arise by chance, when someone finds a great reference photo and we all paint it,” Baxter says. “The result is amazing — five different interpretations in watercolor and oil. It’s fun to compare our different styles of painting.”
Picking up her needles again
Helen Zorbaugh, 86, recalls growing up in Spring Grove, York County, and trying to learn how to stitch from her mother, a talented quilter and embroiderer. “She always said I made my stitches too big,” says Zorbaugh, who eventually set her needles aside.
When her mother died more than a decade ago, Zorbaugh was going through her belongings and came across a large box of embroidery thread and several pillowcases stamped with decorative patterns. For some reason, she put the contents into a leather pouch and brought them home, thinking one day she might get around to embroidering the pattern on those pillowcases, but she never did. When Zorbaugh moved to Homestead Village three years ago, she brought the leather pouch with her and put it in a faraway place, forgotten again, until she found herself isolated by COVID-19 earlier this spring. Suddenly, she remembered her mother’s pillowcases and set to work embroidering them. She has now completed two.
“I felt proud of myself after not doing it for so long that I could pick it up. I felt it was a good job accomplished,” Zorbaugh says. “There are two more pillowcases in the bag, so I might tackle them sometime. They’re predicting the flu and virus will be bad this season. That might be a good time to finish them.”
Finding inspiration in art
Homestead Village’s Life Enrichment office plans activities on and off campus to enhance residents’ quality of life, focusing on education, fitness, the arts, leisure, spiritual growth and outreach. When COVID-19 hit, they looked to alternatives such as Let’s Make Art, a subscription service providing pre-made art kits along with tutorials. Martha Fulmer, 83, jumped at the chance to receive a painting kit and now has done so many paintings that she has started to give them away as gifts. She says she likes the painting kits because the artwork is lightly sketched out, so she can enjoy painting without having to worry about the design concept. She also follows the tutorials on YouTube.
“I had always enjoyed painting, and even took lessons many years ago; but life got busy, so painting had to wait,” Fulmer says. “Now I’m having so much fun. I find inspiration everywhere.”
A course in well-being
Mimi Shapiro, 74, of Lancaster, earned a certificate from Coursera for a 10-week online class on “The Science of Well-Being,” by professor Laurie Santos of Yale University. The class looked at misconceptions about happiness and showed how to understand what well-being really is. Shapiro learned about meditation and even had homework, including sleeping, exercise and generosity.
“I kept notes, with quotes, which was really helpful during this crazy time,” Shapiro says. “The only thing we can really control is our attitude.”
A new language and the ukulele
Eva Hochberg, of Lancaster, works as a translator, so she already knows several languages, including French, German and her native Hungarian. Last fall, she started brushing up on Russian, but she always had a secret dream to someday learn Hebrew. With stay-at-home orders in place, Hochberg doubled up on her Russian studies and still had time to begin learning Hebrew using Duolingo language-learning software.
“Every morning, I would know that, going to bed, I would be a bit smarter than when I got up,” she says.
Hochberg has used her time in isolation to pursue a second dream as well — learning to play a musical instrument. She chose the ukulele and took several lessons from a German friend who, unfortunately, had to return to Germany due to the pandemic. Undeterred, Hochberg discovered instructional YouTube videos in Hungarian and made ukulele practice part of her daily routine.
“Now, I can play one beautiful music piece … together with my husband, who plays the guitar,” Hochberg says. “The stay-in-home period is perfect for home concerts, just recently transmitted by Skype to my mother on the Old Continent!”
A new way to help others
John Clough is no stranger to helping others. He’s been involved for decades with the nonprofit Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic, a network of volunteer private pilots who donate their time, aircraft and fuel to transport people to medical appointments. Since the pandemic, the Garden Spot Village resident has found a new way to stay on the move and serve others. Clough, a Garden Spot Village resident since September 2010, faithfully delivered groceries ordered from Shady Maple Farm Market and orders placed at the community’s own Linden Store. He even delivered flowers for Mother’s Day.
“I thoroughly enjoy serving others,” Clough says. “And making people happier is oh so much fun. I love every minute of it.”
Words of encouragement
When the pandemic hit, residents of the Mennonite Home, the health care campus of Mennonite Home Communities, found themselves separated from family, friends and face-to-face visits. Responding to a call for cards or notes to ease their loneliness, Rosalyn Ward, 80, decided to write a letter because she thought it would be more personal than a store-bought card. Soon, she was writing every week, sharing the goings-on around her home at Woodcrest Villa, the community’s residential campus just up the road. Topics ranged from pet antics in the dog park to spring blooms to discovering new foods.
Over 200 copies of each letter went to all of the Mennonite Home’s personal care and health care residents. Some residents even took Ward up on her invitation to chat by phone. “We had wonderful conversations,” she says. Others wrote letters in return.
“It made me feel wonderful to be able to do it,” Ward says. “In retrospect, I realized the letters were in some ways journalistic for me. I told them what’s going on. It was more chatty. There wasn’t anything heavy in there. It was a way for me to do some journaling that I probably otherwise wouldn’t have done.”
With some COVID-19 restrictions easing, Ward is no longer writing letters to Mennonite Home residents, but that doesn’t mean she’s stopped writing. She now sends monthly letters to shut-ins from her church, Grace Lutheran in Lancaster.
Focused on food and safety
Ray Horn, 72, a retired college professor, is chair of the Garden Club at Masonic Village at Elizabethtown, which includes 73 gardeners and 61 plots. The gardeners have always shared their bounty with Masonic Village’s restaurants and residents, but with the COVID-19 situation unfolding in March, they knew there could be greater needs on campus and at local food banks. Using several unused plots, Ray worked with 12 gardeners to start victory gardens (while social distancing), harvesting tomatoes, peppers, cauliflower, Romaine lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, beans, potatoes, kale, cucumber, Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts, herbs, beets, carrots, butternut squash, raspberries, string beans, spinach, radishes, turnips, corn and more. In addition to delivering to food services staff and having a table of produce from which residents can select, the gardeners have donated to the Community Cupboard of Elizabethtown and employees of Masonic Village.
“We all care about each other here at Masonic Village and all step up when there is a challenge. This is who we are,” Ray says. “Selfishly, the garden is a great place to go in times like this.”
Horn's wife, Pat, 72, coordinated a team of 30 Masonic Village residents that made over 4,000 face masks for residents and staff members, with guidance from staff at the Masonic Health Care Center to ensure the masks met specific guidelines. Pat researched techniques, such as using grocery bags as a third lining for the masks, and networked with residents, family and friends to secure supplies, such as elastic, when they were scarce.
“Our mask team continues to supply Masonic Village administration with masks to distribute as they see fit,” Pat says. “Our sewers are dedicated to helping others.”
Finishing a book — or two
Sixteen years ago, while teaching fourth-grade in Crawford County, in northwestern Pennsylvania, Debbie Mink, 68, took a class that touted the benefits of having teachers write along with their students. So she began writing a fictional story on bullying, working on it over weekends and then bringing it into the classroom for her students to critique. Over the years, as those fourth-graders turned into high-schoolers, they would occasionally ask Mink if she ever finished her book. The answer was always no.
Then three years ago, she showed the first chapter to a retired English teacher who also happened to be her neighbor at Willow Valley Communities. That neighbor started gently nudging her to finish the book, but Mink was just too busy doing other things — until COVID-19 hit. Between a trip to Australia and her husband’s surgery, Mink found herself in quarantine for a total of six weeks, and suddenly she had plenty of time on her hands. She self-published her book, “Choices,” in May.
Geared toward fourth, fifth and sixth graders, “Choices” tells the story of Frank, a fifth grader who bullies classmates he views as different because they have conditions such as ADHD or dyslexia. “It’s a cross-section of students I had over the years. I put their different character traits in there,” Mink says. “It’s a good book for elementary teachers to read with their class. Bullying is so big.”
With her writing and COVID-19 still on a roll, Mink has already written a second book, “Adapting to Vision Challenges — Together,” a memoir sharing Mink’s personal journey as her husband loses his sight and she deals with glaucoma.
And, yes, there may be a third book in the works, this one about time travel. Mink isn’t sure if she’s going to write it. COVID-19 may have a say in it.
“The coronavirus definitely had something to do with (the other books), because otherwise I would have been busy doing other things,” she says.
Dealing with COVID-19 doesn’t necessarily have to be as dramatic as writing a book or learning a new instrument. Former Lancaster city mayor Janice Stork writes in an email that she simply enjoyed having more free time to do things she enjoys, like gardening and cooking.
“I had my living room repainted and after it was done I rehung all my artwork in new places and it has given me a fresh look at my art,” Stork writes.
In addition to writing his daily uplifting emails, George Nettleton has also enjoyed having more time to delve into his hobby of genealogy. His wife, Ruth, he says, has rediscovered cross-stitching.
Nettleon says it’s important for seniors to find a way to cope with the new normal of COVID-19, because it’s not going away anytime soon.
“My concern is that a number of people are sitting in their easy chair, watching TV and hoping this thing will blow over.”