Angie Charlebois, 101, sets her alarm each morning, budgeting just enough time to shower and dress for 10:30 a.m. mass on TV.
Life is a little different now. Instead of her daily trips into town to play cards with friends over coffee, visiting her daughters at the lake, or attending church on Sundays, she stays home in her two-bedroom home in Levack, Ont., and passes the time by reading, cooking, baking, and sewing.
Nestled in a valley with several small inland lakes, Levack is a small mining town with a population of about 1,400, near Sudbury. As warmer weather approaches, and stores and marinas begin reopening, and people begin flocking to their cottages, threats of a second wave of COVID-19 persist.
Many local mayors, who had declared states of emergency in March and April, spoke out urging seasonal residents to remain home so as not to overburden the local healthcare systems or potentially spread the virus.
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Angie has been yearning to visit her daughter’s house on Lake Geneva—the same lake where she owned a cottage many years ago. But, as a local, elderly resident, Angie is acutely aware of the risks to her own health, particularly as the population surges as others begin flocking to their own cottages.
Standing at around five-foot-two with white hair, she has survived her husband Eugene, who died in 1995 from a stroke, and continues to live alone in the house where she raised her children. It’s also where she, as a member of one of the most vulnerable demographics, has been isolating for the past two months.
“I’m lucky I’m able to do things and that I’m in my house, and not in a [retirement] home,” she says, referring to the long list of Ontario retirement homes who have been hit hardest by COVID-19 outbreaks and deaths. Recent inspection reports citing bug infestations and various forms of neglect have also called these conditions within several care homes a humanitarian crisis.
The Public Health Agency of Canada has reported an estimated 81 per cent of the Canadians who’ve died of COVID-19 have been residents of seniors’ facilities. Quebec has been the hardest hit province in the country. It has 2,355 long-term care home residents and, to date, 653 retirement home residents have died due to the virus. Ontario has reported 1,427 deaths among nursing-home patients and 125 among residents of retirement homes.
Despite restrictions easing, Angie remains isolated. She gets help from her neighbours who mow the lawn, and her daughters Clairice and Adele maintain her garden and deliver her groceries. She keeps her freezer stocked with meats and fruits, a practice that she learned while weathering other life-changing events. Though this is not the first world event she has experienced, she maintains it has been the most impactful, particularly on a global scale.
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She survived the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression and the Second World War. Through the decades she has seen civilization change: transportation transition from horse to cars and airplanes, and letters become email and FaceTime. She’s lived through the moon landing, the advent of modern technology, and yet, is adamant the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic is the most life-altering phenomenon she has experienced in 101 years.
Her life has bookended two pandemics. She was born on December 18, 1918 in Oklee, Minnesota in the midst of the Spanish Flu pandemic. The influenza infected nearly 500 million people (about a third of the world’s population at the time) between 1918 and 1919. Among them was her biological father, who succumbed to the virus and died two months before her birth.
“My mother said she was one of the lucky ones who didn’t lose her child because most women who were pregnant at that time if they got it, they lost the baby and often died themselves,” she said.
“I was born a couple of months after my dad passed but my mom never talked about it. I wish I would have asked a few questions but it’s too late now. All I know is that people were dying like flies.”
After her mother remarried, the family moved to Saskatchewan where her stepfather bought a butcher shop. She was 11-years-old when the Great Depression hit in 1929.
“Everything dwindled down to almost nothing during the depression but we were on a farm so we never went hungry,” she said, acknowledging her family’s fortunate position as they were able to continue growing their own food.
By the time World War II began a decade later, she had married her husband Eugene. They owned and ran a butcher shop, so she distinctly remembers when the Canadian government instituted rationing in January 1942.
“When World War II came, things were tight. Of course, Eugene was in the butcher shop so we always had enough to eat but some people would buy like five cents of bologna at a time which was just a few slices so that definitely tells you something,” she said. “Everything was open and things weren’t that expensive at that time but people didn’t have any money to buy anything anyway.” Because credit, as we know it today, didn’t exist, she said bartering became more commonplace.
Years later, the family decided to move to Levack where Eugene began working in the nickel mine for the company Inco.
Today, she sits at her kitchen table in the town where she has lived for over 70 years. Speaking through a corded telephone mounted on the wall, she reflects on some of the biggest changes she’s experienced in her life, the first thing that came to her mind was one word: technology.
Though she can’t remember where she was during the moon landing, “I probably watched it but I can’t remember,” she said, she never would have predicted the vast technological advancements (smartphones, air travel, etc.) that were developed over the past century. She quickly references smartphones before mentioning the convenience of air travel, which enabled her to visit family in Kelowna, B.C., but also facilitated bringing a childhood dream to fruition.
“As a girl, I always wanted to go to Hawaii and in 2004, I finally got my wish,” she said through giggles. “It was a bit more commercial than it probably would have been back then but it was a good trip. Even though it took me some time, I finally got there.”
But, at least for now, travel is a thing of the past as borders remain shut, international travel discouraged and the world comes to grip with a “new normal”. But, technology has also allowed people to stay more connected virtually than what had been possible during other world events. And, though she does miss her social life, she’s grateful she’s been able to keep busy on her own.
“In a way, it’s been hard because I enjoy company and going out, but if I can’t, that’s okay. I’ll do my own thing,” she said.
One of her favourite hobbies is knitting so, in the wake of COVID-19, she has traded in the usual quilts, toques, and mittens for cotton face masks. One small feat to help others while remaining safely inside, away from the virus.
Angie is the author’s paternal grandmother.