89 (soon to be 90) year old Lupe outside her home on Skyline Blvd. June 30, 2020. Credit: Pete Rosos

In the pre-pandemic world, my family had a weekend ritual. Every Sunday, the 12 of us would get together at my parents’ house off Skyline Boulevard in East Oakland to hang out with my 89-year-old grandma, Guadalupe. We would make food (often taking turns cooking one of the Mexican dishes we learned from Grandma), eat at the dinner table, and hang out on the couch to catch up on our lives, with Grandma attentively watching us from her wheelchair. It was a low-key but loving activity that my family looked forward to every week. 

Last summer, one of my sisters moved to Connecticut, along with my brother-in-law. My sister is pursuing her master’s degree as an adult acute care nurse practitioner at Yale. My grandma had a hard time understanding that my sister would be away for three years, and that our weekly Sunday dinners would be different now. Grandma would have to talk to my sister and my brother-in-law over FaceTime rather than in person. 

We never imagined how the whole world was going to change, and that it would soon be much, much harder for Grandma to see most of her loved ones. Four months into the pandemic in Oakland, we’re still trying to figure out how to explain it to her.

A week before Alameda County’s shelter-in-place order went into effect, my grandma had to be hospitalized at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center. That stay was nothing new. Since 2014, Grandma has been in and out of the hospital due to an ongoing series of strokes, including a hemorrhagic stroke in 2015. She spent weeks hospitalized and was left with a condition called Broca’s aphasia, a loss of language caused by the stroke. The aphasia affects the left part of the brain in charge of speech, comprehension, and writing. She often confuses words when trying to talk and does not understand unfamiliar voices. We have to enunciate words slowly for her to understand. She can no longer write, but can still read closed-captioning on the TV screen, and whiteboards have been a saving grace.

My mom and I had to take the lead, taking turns being her caregiver. Over the years since my grandma’s first stroke, we have learned to be diligent about spotting any potential stroke signs. We learned that receiving care soon after a stroke can make the difference between life and death. During every hospitalization, I have been the one in charge of staying by Grandma’s side to help with translating and to ease her anxiety.

We had been doing remarkably well given the limited and often difficult to understand information about strokes. Then, the pandemic hit.

My grandma was released from Alta Bates three days before the shelter-in-place order went into effect. She is in the high-risk category for COVID.

Now, if we have to go grocery shopping, my mom goes early in the morning during the window allotted for immunocompromised folks (she has diabetes). If I go, I call ahead to ask what time is less crowded, and often need to go in the middle of the workday. Every single time I need to go out—whether for work, to get groceries, or even a trivial task such as taking my dog to the pet wash—I know I risk exposing my grandma to the virus, and I’m that much more careful.

Meanwhile, information about the pandemic is changing so rapidly that she has a hard time keeping up with everything she reads on her TV screen. We’ve had to explain why life has changed so drastically; why my siblings hadn’t come over to visit until very recently, and she had to talk to them via FaceTime like she does with my sister in Connecticut; why her doctor’s appointments are now over the phone, and she is not allowed outside of the house, not even to get breakfast at Cafe of The Bay in the Laurel District, her favorite local restaurant. 

The week she was discharged from the hospital in March, she had a follow-up appointment with her regular doctor. By then, medical appointments had been moved to phone or video. During the doctor’s call, I had lots of questions. We still did not know as much about the virus, and wearing masks was still not mandatory in high-risk situations. One of my biggest concerns: should I forgo living in my apartment (I live alone) during the lockdown and move back to my parents’ house to care for her? Or was it safe to travel back and forth between my apartment and their home? I was given the green light to continue going back and forth so long as I did not interact with anyone between visits. 

Before joining The Oaklandside as the arts and community reporter, I was freelancing full time, and the flexibility allowed me to split half the week between my apartment and my parents’ home. Now, we split the responsibility of caring for my grandma between my mom, my youngest sister, who still lives at home, and myself. While it is a privilege to have three family members care for her, it doesn’t make it any less strenuous for any of us.

I’ve also been feeling guilty about not being able to cover the recent protests against racial injustice in person. Prior to the pandemic, I was always out documenting actions and talking to as many people as I could. Since the protests started, I haven’t covered a single protest out in the streets. But the pandemic has affirmed for me that the well-being of my grandma comes first. I have to think about what putting myself in high-risk situations could mean for her frail health.

Now, as people, businesses, and governments have begun to relax the shelter-in-place guidelines and their own behaviors, I see more people hanging out in public areas not wearing masks. I get angry. I often wonder if people not taking the pandemic seriously realize that there are countless families living in multi-generational households and caring for their elders.

In Latinx cultures, multigenerational households are not uncommon. In fact, they are the norm. You will often find grandparents living with one of their grown children. Grandparents care for their grandchildren—when accessibility to daycares, or summer camps are a luxury a family cannot afford, grandparents can help bridge that socioeconomic gap. 

This was the dynamic in my family’s household growing up. While both my parents worked, my grandma was in charge of caring for six children, newborns to teenagers. She was the foundation who kept the family afloat. 

In early June, when Alameda County Public Health officials allowed people to form “social bubbles” of 12 or fewer people, it made sense for my family to form its own. It meant that my grandma would once again feel a sense of normalcy. As a precaution, we all decided to get tested at least once a month (I had already been getting tested since May). The first time we all met, Grandma wore a medical-grade mask and a plastic shield over her face as an added precaution. 

It was confusing for her to have to wear the mask. Even harder to understand when people talked to her through the mask. This is something that affects not only people with aphasia, like my grandmother, but others with a speech or hearing impairment. Many people who are deaf and have trouble hearing heavily rely on lip-reading and facial cues to understand others.

All through that first family meetup, I had to repeat what family members were telling my grandma so she could understand. Eventually, she grew aggravated and went into her room.

I often think about how many other families are navigating working full-time and caretaking for an elder or other loved one, all while navigating the pandemic. My family learned the ropes all on our own. Each hospitalization over the years provided more understanding about how aphasia affects my grandma. With the pandemic, we have learned to be more cautious in how we handle our family get-togethers. We wear masks at all times outside, carry extra hand sanitizer, and limit our social interactions to our social bubble. As much as I think that it soon will be okay for any immediate member of our family to expand our social activities, it is a risk that we simply cannot take. 

Currently, visitors are not allowed inside hospital rooms. If my grandma was to be hospitalized again while the pandemic remains, the consequences could be catastrophic for her well-being.

My grandma has a loving and exceptional support system that understands what is at stake and how our lives will never be the same. If you’re tired of social distancing, ready to ditch the masks and return to the way things were, I ask you to think about my grandma and the countless others like her—and me, and my whole family—in our community. When you and I cross paths on the sidewalk or at the grocery store, your mask doesn’t just protect me. It protects a whole invisible network of people who love me and rely on me. Your mask is an act of love to protect our community.

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.