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Germany

COVID seems to have shrunk people's lives

Almost 200,000 people in Germany live in residential care, two-thirds of them have mental disabilities. How have they experienced the coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions on their lives?

Four residents of the Haus am Quendelberg

Like nearly everyone in Germany, residents at the Haus am Quendelberg are eager to meet friends and family

The Haus am Quendelberg is a residential project in the western German town of Montabaur. It is home to 24 men and women with cognitive disorders. And COVID-19 has completely changed their lives.

Groups of eight people are housed on each of three floors. They share a kitchen, but each resident has a private bathroom. Nobody here can forget that the coronavirus pandemic still poses a serious threat. After all, everybody, including care staff, wears FFP2 masks all the time — except in their own rooms and at mealtimes.

Residents having a meal in the kitchen

The residents of Haus am Quendelberg share the kitchen area

Stefan Jung is 63 years old. He is a big fan of table tennis and soccer. He also collects historical biographies — and the coronavirus pandemic has given him plenty of time to read. But he also enjoys taking walks — into the town, for instance.

"The worst thing when the pandemic began was not being able to get out and about," Stefan recalls. "To begin with, you just weren't allowed out at all!"

Rita Wingender also enjoys popping into town, having ice cream, meeting friends for coffee, and keeping up to date with things. Before COVID, she would be away for anything up to three hours, bumping into all sorts of people. Now, she often only stays out for 10 minutes, says care home director Matthias Dill.

The Haus am Quendelberg home is just a short walk from the local bakery, the supermarket, a mall, and a small park. When strict COVID restrictions were first imposed in March 2020, it was announced that all residents were to stay at home. They felt as if they were being locked away. "Locked away," says Dill, "is a harsh way of putting it. But that was pretty much what it came down to." Care staff at the home had to work very hard to persuade residents of the necessity of staying in safety to limit chances of contracting the coronavirus.

Stefan Jung standing in his room looking at a book cover

Stefan Jung likes to read and has had more time than he'd like to do it lately

The situation became more difficult, says Dill, when some regulations began to be eased: "Our clients would look out of the window. And they could, of course, see that in many ways life was getting back to normal." As the pandemic continued, they missed out on the summer fair, the Advent fair, meeting people in the nearby church garden.

Made to wait for vaccination

The people in the Haus am Quendelberg found themselves having to wait longer for vaccinations than residents of regular care homes. Management of the roll-out was "less well-coordinated than elsewhere." Nevertheless, by the end of April, most of the clients had received their first vaccination. Dill uses the term client deliberately: to emphasize that his staff are determined to serve the interests of the 24 residents — including their right to independence: "It is our duty, to make sure that they get out. In an ideal world, they wouldn't need us."

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COVID-19 Special: People with disabilities face exclusion

Although some of the people living at the Haus am Quendelberg are there due to accidents later in life, most residents have suffered from cognitive impairment since early childhood, which is why they have legal guardians — either parents or siblings, or full-time professional guardians, some of whom are responsible for more than 20 different cases.

These guardians offer their guidance when it comes to making decisions about things like money matters or health issues. They must, for example, give their approval for vaccinations. Or permission for an interview with DW.

Most residents work in nearby workshops that employ people with impairments. When these workshops were forced to close down in 2020 due to the impact of COVID, some of the carers set up alternative programs in the care home. But when the workshops reopened, contact was supposed to be kept to a minimum. Anybody living in Montabaur has to stay in Montabaur. It was a ruling that cost several people at the home their jobs.

view of the town of Montabaur and its castle

Haus am Quendelberg has a view of the town of Montabaur and its castle

Cut off from family and friends: 'I yearn to see them'

Just like in any nursing home, visits were kept to an absolute minimum. In fact, to begin with, nobody was allowed to visit at all. Even today, visits have to be registered in advance, they are kept short, and visitors must stay away from the groups living in the home. A tablet computer was made available for video chats. But it was hardly used, with telephone conversations the only other alternative.

"I haven't had any visitors, says Michaela Iltis, and it clearly hurts: "I yearn to see my aunt." The one she used to visit before the pandemic. The separation, she repeats, is painful.

The 51-year-old says that COVID had also been a real challenge for her relationship with her partner, Rolf-Dieter Bärz, who is also a resident of the home. But they live on different floors: "He has to stay upstairs. Me downstairs. We're simply not allowed to see each other." Although Bärz points out that she does sometimes sneak upstairs. "Not for long," Iltis adds.

The two of them do also share a bus to work in the morning. Both wearing masks. And social distancing, of course, applies. Then they work in different groups and they are always sad to part ways at the end of the bus ride.

Michaela Iltis and Rolf-Dieter Bärz sitting in the atrium wearing COVID masks

Residents Michaela Iltis and her partner Rolf-Dieter Bärz are fed up with the coronavirus restrictions

Frustration and hostility

Bärz is one of many people struggling to come to terms with the changes that COVID has brought with it: "It's awful. You never see anybody." Even his full-time guardian doesn't come round, "until it's all over." Masks and hygiene measures are, he says, not the problem. But, he adds: "I've ruined my skin and my hands with all that disinfectant."

And there are other injuries, too, During the time when they were not allowed to leave the care home under any circumstances, he did step outside the building on one occasion and sat down on a bench. Then somebody started shouting that he should get inside! Iltis remembers the incident: "What a load of nonsense!"

Matthias Dill looks on as the Jacobs brothers say goodbye with an ellbow-bump

Care home director Matthias Dill (r) makes sure visitors adhere to social distancing rules

Hostility and mockery from youngsters — that was also going on before COVID, remembers Birgit Reuter. She has an office job at the Haus am Quendelberg home. A job she really enjoys, she says, because of the contact with the people who live in the project. But even before the coronavirus came along, there were people who would ask unbelievable questions: "Why are you letting them out! They're disabled!" She says it is difficult to grasp why anybody would talk that way.

Matthias Dill says: "We've clearly got a lot of room for improvement when it comes to overcoming the wall that many people have inside their heads." People have a lot of fear, a lot of reservations. Which makes participation difficult. And explains reservations in the broader society: "We need more political backing."

On the wish list for the future?

"That we finally get on top of corona!", says Michaela Iltis. She is still looking forward to that reunion with her aunt. Stefan Jung, meanwhile, says it is high time to visit his niece in Cologne. His parents and his sister have passed. "I need to get back home," he says. And his voice breaks.

Most of the residents in the home in Montabaur hope to get the second dose of their vaccination by the end of May. And while they all know that things will never be quite the same again, they do share one powerful hope: that things might return to normal.

This article has been translated from German.

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