COVID-19 alters how families celebrate life events

An old photograph of Colleen Pyne. Her family had planned a big celebration for her 90th birthday party on March 14, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to change plans. (Alex Wright)

Shari Heywood’s original plans for her mother’s 90th birthday celebration included a large gathering of friends and family at her mother’s senior living community in Highland, Utah, her mom’s favorite flowers, a photo slideshow and a playlist of ’50s music.

That all changed with the COVID-19 pandemic. Highland Glen — where Heywood’s mother, Colleen Pyne, lives — began to limit visitors as a precaution to protect its residents.

Cautionary measures like these are forcing people across the world to forgo or adapt major live celebrations like birthdays, weddings, baby showers and graduations.

With four days until the celebration, Heywood and her family scrambled to find another location for the party and ended up reserving their local church building. The night before the party, Heywood received an email from Highland Glen announcing the facilities were on lockdown. No one could go in or out except for medical necessities.

Heywood’s daughter, Alex Wright, said the news was a hard blow for the family.

“My mom was devastated,” Wright said. “All my mom wanted was a day to celebrate her mother with all of the people who love Grandma Pyne the most.” Heywood herself did not respond to the Universe’s attempts to contact her.

Until recently, Pyne lived in Southern California. Wright said Pyne’s dementia has worsened and that “the transition from California to Utah has been confusing, scary and a bit lonely at times.”

Wright said her mother had put so much time and effort into planning the celebration that she felt it was too late to cancel. The family eventually made the decision to move forward with the party, even though it meant Pyne herself wouldn’t be able to attend.

Heywood went to the nursing home the morning of the party. “They agreed to let her in after a lot of pleading and swabbing her temperature,” Wright said.

Collen Pyne, left, and her daughter, Shari Heywood, at Highland Glen in Highland, Utah. (Alex Wright)

Heywood stayed with her mother for 12 hours to help lift her spirits and keep her company, eventually missing out on attending the party she had planned. Wright said Heywood helped Pyne FaceTime so she could see the party.

According to Wright, after Pyne and Heywood hung up the FaceTime, Pyne kept asking “How can we get there? Can we go there?” Wright said her mom tried not to cry as she explained they wouldn’t be able to go.

“Grandma’s memory has gotten worse over the years, and she doesn’t recognize a lot of her grandkids and old friends. So while she didn’t necessarily know that she was missing anything, it was very hard for all of her family members — especially those who hadn’t seen her in a long time,” said Wright.

Despite the change of plans, Wright said the celebration was a positive experience.

“In the grand scheme of things, we were lucky to get to have the party at all,” Wright said. “It ended up being a really lovely day to be together and celebrate Grandma. It was a bit of a reunion for a lot of my cousins, and it was so fun to look at old pictures of us when we were little at Grandma’s beautiful southern California home.”

Her brother, Austin Heywood, set up a camera so family members could record happy birthday messages for Pyne. “So far we haven’t been able to visit her to show her the messages, but look forward to the day when we can,” Wright said.

She added that she and her family are grateful Highland Glen is taking precautions to keep Pyne and other residents safe.

“This crazy time has forced us to have some perspective on a lot of little things, like the stresses of planning a 90th birthday party. What matters the most now is doing everything we can to keep the people who are at risk safe,” Wright said.

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