A parade of automobiles rolled in and out of Graceland Rehabilitation and Nursing Center’s parking lot in a show of love and appreciation for residents sheltering in place due to COVID-19. Photos by Wiley Henry

By Wiley Henry

MEMPHIS, TN – After shutting the doors to visitors in mid-March due to COVID-19, the staff at Graceland Rehabilitation and Nursing Center exceeded their goal for residents to see their loved ones.

More than 50 automobiles at one time stretched four city blocks in the Whitehaven community on May 30 between 2 p.m. – 4 p.m. The parade snaked in and out of Graceland’s parking lot in a show of love and appreciation. 

The staff positioned most residents under tents to shade them from the mid-day temperature as horns blared ceremoniously. Some residents waved approval as the parade rolled by them – some carrying balloons, others holding signs with the names of loved ones.

“Today was an opportunity for residents who haven’t had a chance to see their families – going on two months now – to have the face-to-face time,” LaToya Baker, Graceland’s director of Marketing and Public Relations, explained. 

“We saw nationally where other organizations were doing a parade,” said Baker. “We thought that would be a great way to maintain social distancing and encourage a little back and forth with their family.”

Elizabeth Perkins was delighted. She had not seen her sister Dorothy Brown since management shut the doors to keep COVID-19 at bay. She and her husband, Arthur Perkins, pulled into the parking lot with the name DOROTHY BROWN emblazoned on a sign. 

“It brought joy to my heart not only to see my sister, but to see other patients,” she said. “It was nice the way they had it set up. It was more close-and-personal than what I thought.” 

Brown thought the “close-and-personal” parade of automobiles was a good idea. “Some people haven’t seen their folks in a long time,” she responded by phone the next day. “It was good.”

Not all well-wishers expressed love from their automobiles. At least seven of them from Greater Love Miracle Center

This three-wheel car, or trike, was one of more than 50 automobiles on the scene.

Church on Vance Avenue stood outside the wrought iron gate singing. Their songs were underscored with messages of love.

“We’re here doing our duty as Christians…encouraging these patients and the people that are working here…letting them know somebody cares, somebody loves them,” said Vernita Westbrook, who co-pastors the church with her husband, the Rev. Dennis Westbrook.  

“This is our duty to visit those who need us,” she said. “We have a group of people here just to encourage them.” 

Two sisters and a niece and nephew were encouraged. They came to lay eyes on Daisy Pettis, if only for a moment.

“I really miss coming to see my sister every week like I normally would do,” said Maria Lee, but then added, “This works for me.”

 Another sister, Mary Watson, chimed in. “I usually come every Wednesday. Since this (pandemic) has been going on, I can’t come and can’t call. [But] I’m glad the day was a good opportunity for me to see her.” 

Watson was happy to know that Daisy Pettis, a resident of two years, was looking good.

LaToya Lee, whose mother is Maria Lee, is the niece of Watson and Pettis. She noticed something about her aunt. “When we did drive by, I saw my aunt shed a few tears,” she said. “It lets me know that she misses us as much as we miss her.”

She added that the “drive by” had really shown her that people really care about their loved ones instead of just dropping them off and not coming back to see them.

Tommie Lee Jr., LaToya Lee’s brother, expressed a little sadness, though. He said the experience touched him. “But it’s kind of sad that you can’t sit with her, speak to her, or pick her up.” 

The residents at Graceland are faring well considering COVID-19’s onslaught on nursing homes around the country and in Memphis and Shelby County. However, Baker  said there hasn’t been an outbreak among the 155 residents at the 200-bed facility.

At least 70 residents participated, she said.

While COVID-19 is ravaging nursing homes, the most vulnerable population, Baker said Graceland is following the Center for Disease Control and Prevention protocols to ensure the safety of residents and workers.

According to the Shelby County Health Department’s latest figures, there are 4,581 cases of COVID-19 in Shelby County, and that number includes 102 deaths. At least one-third of those deaths were nursing home residents and workers.

Has there been any residents infected with COVID-19 at Graceland?

“We’ve had people that we suspected; and when we did, we tested them,” said Baker. “But we’ve been very fortunate that we don’t have any confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the facility.” 

The residents’ temperatures are checked periodically and sporadically throughout the day, Baker said. Also, the staff wears masks, including the residents when they’re not in their rooms.

Although the residents have been confined to the facility with little interaction with their families, Baker said they may plan another parade to connect residents with families before it gets excruciatingly hot.