For her 101st birthday, Dorothy Rusch took a shot.
No, it wasn’t a shot of her favorite beverage, and it certainly wasn’t a Jell-O shot. Instead, the longtime Pasadena resident proudly received a shot of Johnson & Johnson vaccine on her birthday, the perfect gift after more than a year of upheaval and anxiety from the coronavirus pandemic and the isolation it entailed.
“That was a really special present,” Rusch said in a recent interview, just days after her birthday via Zoom. “I’m here, and I’m glad I’m here.”
The vaccine was not the only gift Rusch received that weekend. Outside of her home on Euclid Avenue — where she has lived since 1964 — her children had something of a party set up for the family matriarch, while friends drove by to wish her the happy birthday they had been unable to for her centennial the prior year.
“Nobody just drove by,” Rusch’s daughter, Miriam, said. “People stopped and got out — with their masks — and talked and stayed. They all love my mom.”
That afternoon, Miriam Rusch said, was the best medicine after a year of loneliness, and it put pep in her mother’s step, her wheelchair notwithstanding.
“I think it was being able to connect again,” Miriam explained. “I asked her about it a few days after and she said, ‘It really lifted my spirits.’ Her nurse came to check on her the next day, and he said he really saw the difference in her.”
And what a difference a year makes.
Last year, for Dorothy’s 100th birthday, her daughters had planned to take her to Hamburger Mary’s in West Hollywood as a surprise to ring in the occasion. However, after the global pandemic was declared and California issued a stay-at-home order, they instead settled for In-N-Out. Worse, a large poster crafted by Dorothy’s top fans at the Allendale Branch Library — where a celebration had been planned — that paid tribute to her had to be delivered late, informally and without brandishing the assuredly hundreds of signatures it would have garnered in any other year.
“It’s been awful for her,” Miriam said. “My mother is a very special person. She didn’t even stop driving — locally in Pasadena, going to Vroman’s or going to visit her friends — until she was 96. Her independence was the most important, and that was the biggest fear she had, that she wouldn’t get to go places.”
In the pre-pandemic times, when it wasn’t Vroman’s Bookstore, Dorothy found herself alternately at All Saints Episcopal Church or Chabad of Pasadena, where she stood out against the Hasidic backdrop with her Reform upbringing and life. Absent those outlets, the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, native would journey to her beloved Allendale library, which Miriam described as the “Cheers” of the library world and where she said her mother functioned as the queen bee.
Since last year, Dorothy’s one major outing was in the fall, when the onetime Pasadena schoolteacher and civil rights movement demonstrator insisted on personally dropping off her mail-in ballot picking Joe Biden to be president.
“This is my mom, involved with All Saints and the Chabad and everything, and all of a sudden she couldn’t go to things,” she added. “All these things got taken away from her.”
Searching her memories for a moment, Miriam then recalled: “She said she felt confined.”
That confinement is likely to end soon for Dorothy, thanks to the vaccination provided through Keck Medicine of USC, which in March ran a program to inoculate homebound residents with Johnson & Johnson vaccines — a task appropriate for their gimmick of simple storage requirements and being a one-and-done dose.
“It represents a sense of security and an ability to reconnect with loved ones,” explained Dr. Laura Mosqueda, the geriatrician with Keck Medicine who led the door-to-door program. “It’s very important for folks, for their emotional, cognitive, physical and spiritual reasons.”
Mosqueda, a professor of family medicine at Keck School of Medicine and also a co-director of the National Center on Elder Abuse, said this past year has been devastating for seniors, who are often reliant on a social life and outside assistance to remain engaged, even if they never contracted COVID-19. Additionally, with fewer gatekeepers around, those seniors can become more vulnerable to scammers.
“I think the ones most affected by it are people who really thrive in being out — the elderly, the disabled,” Miriam Rusch observed.
For those who might have suffered a death in the family, seniors and their younger kin found themselves in a reality where the best goodbye they could bid a deceased spouse or relative was virtually, through a computer screen — if at all.
“I really wonder about the long-term ill effects of this on so many people and so many families,” Mosqueda said. “I think it’ll be important as we move forward to recognize that this was a traumatic event for so many people in so many different ways.”
The doctor remained hopeful, however, that the fallout from the pandemic would move the conversation forward, especially in California where nursing home and hospice fraud are widely suspected. A Los Angeles Times investigation last year highlighted that Los Angeles County, with 618 hospice care facilities at the time, was host to a particularly large number of related Medicare and Medicaid fraud cases.
“There really is hope. I think it really renewed a lot of peoples’ desires to push for nursing home reform,” Mosqueda said. “I think it has opened the doors for those conversations and has exposed the ageism even more greatly than before and has made it more obvious.”
Back in Pasadena, the Rusches are considering their first travel plans once Dorothy’s immunity takes hold. The Huntington Library in nearby San Marino will be on the list, as will Vroman’s (“Yes!” Dorothy exclaimed) and the Allendale library (“Oh, of course”). Above all, she thought she might like to see the ocean, perhaps in Santa Barbara.
“As long I can go to the beach,” Dorothy said, settling the matter.
The vaccine has proved to be a gift for Miriam and her sisters as well, and that night, everyone enjoyed a meal at Mamma’s Brick Oven Pizza and Pasta in South Pasadena, where Dorothy ordered shrimp scampi with linguine.
“I feel so blessed because we were so upset last year for mom,” Miriam said. “I’m so grateful that we’re here for her 101st.”
Mosqueda, too, enjoyed Dorothy’s birthday, because it meant she got to personally administer the vaccine for a friend.
“It was such a joy to see her. She was dressed and ready for her birthday party. I had met her before, so it was fun to see her again. She was very happy to get this and called it her birthday gift,” Mosqueda said. “And now, family can visit with much less anxiety. The importance of human touch and being able to hug and be with people, that’s an important part of being human.”