AUBURN — Jeanne Charest did her best for Christmas this year, but it was less than spectacular. 

“I celebrated with my daughter,” said Charest, 80, a resident at the Auburn Esplanade Apartments. “She parked out in the parking lot, opened her trunk, and we exchanged gifts that way. So that was that. When my two boys came over, I met them outside. They were wearing masks. I gave them their gifts and that was all — that was the end of Christmas.” 

For the seniors living at the Esplanade and places like it, these are bleak and uncertain times. They’ve been locked down since last March so there’s almost no socializing. They were told vaccines were on the way to help things along, but that was weeks ago. 

Where, wonder many of the residents who live in the Esplanade’s 100 apartments? Where are those vaccines they were promised? 

“I don’t know how to say this, but I think we should be a priority because of our ages,” Charest said. “A lot of older people are dying from this virus, so we’re all hoping we can get the vaccine sooner than later.” 

For the residents, waiting for the vaccine — or for even just news of it — is a full-time position, and they have to do it mostly alone. Their community room is closed up. All activities have been shut down. It’s the same situation at elderly housing facilities across the land and the elderly residents are getting restless and frustrated. 

Not to mention afraid. 

“We’re not against everyone else who’s had the vaccine, like the nurses and doctors and policemen,” said Rita Brooks, also 80 and a three-year resident at the Esplanade. “It’s not that. But we keep asking all the time: what about us? And even the doctors don’t know when we’re going to get them.” 

Brooks has COPD, a lung disease that makes her extra vulnerable to the complications of COVID-19. 

“And so I have anxiety and my anxiety has been getting worse,” Brooks said. “Because there’s days that I just sit and cry about it. But the thing of it is, is my feeling is that the government and the state don’t care. Because, you know, it’s mostly the elderly that have been dying because of this and who gives a damn about the elderly?” 

She’s not the only one who is starting to feel ignored, if not outright neglected. 

“You’d think that they’d consider us seniors and worry about us,” said Lucy Berube, a 74-year-old who has been at the Esplanade for 10 years. “But they don’t. We hear one thing and then another thing and so we’re just waiting and waiting.” 

It’s particularly hard, Berube said, because there is little else to do but wait and wonder and then wait some more. 

It’s not like you can get together,” she said. “We just stay in our apartments. “There’s no socializing at all. All you can do is worry about it. Everybody is just waiting to see what’s going to happen. 

Most of the women said they were hopeful when news arrived that a vaccine was coming, and they were patient. But the more time that goes by without even an inkling of when they might get their shots, the more time they have to ponder the possibility that they are being forgotten. 

Or something even more sinister. 

“How can I put this nicely?” said Dorothy Dumais, a 72-year-old who’s been living at the Esplanade for 12 years. “It’s like they don’t give a shit about us because we’re old. Let’s get rid of these people because there are too many old people around. Maybe that’s it.” 

Like some of the others, Dumais tunes into the news to hear Maine Center for Disease Control Director Dr. Nirav D. Shah provide his regular updates about all things COVID. But even Dr. Shah, whom the women tend to trust, doesn’t offer any estimation of when the vaccine might be coming their way. 

It’s particularly frustrating, the women said, because they know they have a limited number of years left. With a vaccine, they hope that at least the quality of those remaining years might improve. They might be able to go out again, to see their families. 

“I’ve got grandkids and great grandkids,” said Charest, going on six years of living in the building, “and I want to be with them.” 

“It’s kind of scary,” Brooks said, “to say, hey, maybe I won’t be here to see my two new great grandchildren who were just born. 

On the evening news, they see reports of people from a variety of different groups getting their vaccine shots, some of them twice. 

“And we’re just kind of wondering, when will it be our turn?” asked Ginger Levaasseur, an 81-year-old who’s been at the Esplanade for a year and a half. “We’re all just staying put as much as possible, but it would be nice to finally get a date and time.” 

Charest said she’s glad that the nurses, doctors and other health care workers have been getting vaccinated because “they’re right in the middle of this mess.” But at the same time, she said, it’s getting easy to become paranoid about the vaccines because the more questions they get, the fewer answers there seem to be. 

“Are we being overlooked?” she wondered. “Do they want us to die so there’s less Social Security they have to pay?” 

State officials have always maintained that the elderly will be among the first to receive the vaccine. On Wednesday, Gov. Janet Mills announced changes to Maine’s strategy for distributing COVID-19 vaccines, shifting focus to police and firefighters, critical COVID-19 response personnel along with men and women age 70 and older.  

Public safety officials and COVID response personnel are now part of Phase 1A, which is already underway and includes health care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities. Older residents are now part of Phase 1B, which is expected to begin in February.  

Does that mean the anxious residents and the Esplanade and facilities like it can finally breathe easier, knowing that the vaccine is heading their way? 

Hard to say. State officials say progress under the new strategy hinges, as always, on increasing the supply of vaccine doses coming into Maine. For the folks at the Esplanade, that means more waiting and more uncertainty. They’ll believe the vaccine is here, they say, when they see it with their own eyes. 

“At our age, there is fear of the virus,” Brooks said. “But it’s the not knowing that’s really scaring us.” 


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