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For vaccinated residents and staff, Thanksgiving in nursing homes is proof ‘we’re back to life’

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More than 100 people filled the dining room at Ararat Nursing Facility to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Children and grandchildren embraced their loved ones. Friends in wheelchairs sat beside one another chatting in Armenian. Residents rose from their seats to dance to “Hey Jan Ghapama,” an Armenian song written about a stuffed pumpkin dish.

At one of the tables in the Mission Hills nursing home, 82-year-old Anahit Papiryan danced as best she could from her wheelchair, throwing her hands up in the air and turning them from side to side. At times, she kissed her granddaughter Ruzanna Grigoryan’s hand.

“You’re the light of my life,” Papiryan told the 34-year-old in Armenian. Papiryan, originally from Yerevan, immigrated to the United States more than 30 years ago.

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“You’re my heart,” responded Grigoryan, who wore a blue surgical mask to keep her grandmother safe.

The Thanksgiving scene was a far cry from last year, which consisted of limited outdoor visits and calls from behind windows to protect vulnerable nursing home residents amid a surge of COVID-19 cases.

Gone was the COVID unit that once held dozens of people and with it the darkness that followed the deaths of 36 residents and two staff members. A resident hasn’t tested positive at Ararat since Dec. 20, according to Margarita Kechichian, the facility’s executive director.

Ararat Nursing Facility resident Manaser Yadegaryan, 88, dances to traditional Armenia music during a Thanksgiving celebration on Thursday.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

“During the pandemic, there was no life. These walls were dead walls and there was no life here. There was only isolation, there was only fear and sadness, no happiness whatsoever,” said Susan Yeranyan, the director of clinical services. “Today, in comparison to last year, it’s proof that we’re back to life again … Last year, we didn’t have the chance to celebrate, to say thank you and to have fun.”

At Ararat, 96% of residents and 100% of staff are vaccinated. Administrators estimate that about 70% of residents have received booster shots.

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Across the state, 88% of nursing home residents and 94% of staff are vaccinated, according to government data.

Despite high vaccination rates, some experts worry that the holidays could bring renewed outbreaks as immunity wanes.

“We are not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination … we must stay vigilant,” said Dr. Michael Wasserman, past president of the California Assn. of Long Term Care Medicine, which represents doctors, nurses and others working in nursing homes. “If you’re visiting a loved one in a nursing home, be aware of how you are going about your life when it comes to the pandemic.”

Nursing homes have been ground zero for the pandemic in the U.S., suffering a staggering proportion of the deaths from COVID-19. As of Monday, there have been 9,343 COVID-related resident deaths in skilled nursing facilities in California.

To fight the disease, nursing homes locked down, cutting off residents’ access to family and friends for their protection. Visitation started to return to normal only this year, as the number of vaccinations rose.

Noyem Ghadyan, top, shares a laugh with resident Sirvart Abadjian.

Noyem Ghadyan, top, a life enrichment specialist, shares a laugh with resident Sirvart Abadjian during the Thanksgiving festivities at Ararat Nursing Facility.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

While Wasserman said he supports opening up visitation for nursing home residents “who have taken the brunt of the virus,” he worried about what the holidays could bring as family and friends gathered indoors.

He pointed to a winter surge last year that killed thousands of nursing home residents.

“If the virus gets into a nursing home or assisted living facility with vaccinated residents, the death rate should not be nearly as high as when they were unvaccinated,” Wasserman said. “However, the death rate is not zero and it is significant. This is still a virus that older adults do not want to get.”

Ararat Nursing Facility isn’t taking any chances.

More than a dozen signs warn visitors before they even step inside, reminding them to wear a mask, to practice social distancing and not to enter if they’ve felt sick in the last 48 hours. There’s no entrance without proof of vaccination or a negative test taken within 72 hours. Staff members are tested every week.

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Earlier this week, residents had their first Thanksgiving celebration with music, dancing and a COVID-19 test for the singer before he entered.

“It was almost normal,” said Kechichian, the facility’s executive director. “It was really nice.”

By 10 a.m. Thursday, more than 100 residents had gathered in the facility’s largest dining room, where autumn leaves decorated the walls, for the second celebration. On the table, crystal glasses were stuffed with orange napkins and each person had a packaged slice of apple pie in front of them.

Some of the women had blankets on their laps and shawls on their shoulders to keep warm. Everyone except for the residents wore masks.

As part of a cooking class to mark the festivities, Marina Terteryan scooped out a pumpkin to make Ghapama, a traditional Armenian dish. The 37-year-old planned to stuff it with rice, dried apricots, plums and raisins, along with walnuts, almonds and pecans.

Although some families make the dish in their homes, Terteryan said it’s not as popular among younger generations of Armenians. There’s even a pop song written about the dish, “Hey Jan Ghapama.”

“It’s my whole kind of mission to bring light to the stories of Armenian elders and to be a culture bearer for these types of traditions,” Terteryan said. “It’s really important for me to unearth this tradition again and get people excited about it.”

Kechichian estimates that about 90% of the home’s residents are Armenian. The other 10%, she said with a laugh, are “honorary Armenians.” In the lobby, there’s both an Armenian and an American flag.

Lily Savadian had tears in her eyes as she took a video of the residents and staff dancing hand in hand. Savadian was visiting her 96-year-old mother, who has lived at Ararat for more than 10 years.

The staff, she said, has embraced residents “just like their grandparents, just like their own.”

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“They’ve made this a home for them,” Savadian said, her voice trembling. “There’s so much to be thankful for.”

Siranouche Haladjian, the resident council president, vividly recalls last Thanksgiving when she ate turkey in her room alone. This year, her son planned to pick her up so she could celebrate the holiday with the family.

“For so many months we were stuck in our rooms and we didn’t leave because of safety,” the 88-year-old said. “It’s wonderful now because I can have visitors. My kids and grandkids can come.”

After the pumpkin was slathered in butter and ready to bake in the oven, Yeranyan thanked Terteryan for the class and wished the residents “Happy Thanksgiving.”

Soon, staff members would bring out plates of turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberries and salad for the residents.

“Thanksgiving is a day to thank God and to thank for everything that we have. We’re still alive,” Yeranyan told the residents. “We have to be thankful for this.”

At a corner table, Victor Gorgy unpacked a cooler full of his mother’s favorites: Greenland Istanbuli white cheese, pita bread and a chocolate mousse cake.

The 59-year-old felt especially thankful, after his mother survived a bout of COVID-19 last year. Her oxygen levels dropped so low that she was hospitalized for four weeks.

“But she is great now,” he said, looking over at 89-year-old Josephine Berzy with a smile.

When Papiryan was finished dancing, Grigoryan called her mother, aunts and cousins on FaceTime so they could greet her. Papiryan, who at times would embrace the phone, told her family not to worry about her and that she was safe and happy.

At times Papiryan, who has dementia, thought her family was back in Armenia. They would periodically remind her of everyone’s name and who they were.

“It’s bittersweet because she’s not home with us,” Grigoryan said. “But I feel safe and happy because I know how well the nurses take care of her.”

Before the family hung up, Papiryan held up a glass filled with apple juice to the camera — a gesture of cheers for the holiday.

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