This time last year, COVID-19 retracted social circles almost overnight. Adult children waved to parents in assisted-living facilities through windows. First-time parents brought home newborns without family support. But with the increased availability of vaccines, folks are counting down the days to that first hug and that postponed visit with family, or a happy reunion with friends. Here are a few stories of what that looks like, from a grandchild’s first visit with her grandparents to an unconventional 100th birthday party and a return of in-person dance classes at a community senior center.

A first visit from the grandparents

Becoming a first-time parent is hard; doing it during a pandemic adds isolation to anxiety. That was the situation Chelsea Cooper and her husband, Michael, found themselves in last spring. Their daughter Rosemary was 7 weeks old when the pandemic hit. Now 15 months old and walking, Rosemary and her parents have weathered the past year, and finally welcomed some exciting, newly vaccinated visitors: her grandparents.

On a recent Friday evening, Mark and Ann Jinkins flew into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport from Wisconsin for a long-delayed 10-day visit after seeing their granddaughter only virtually for months. Rosemary was “a little overwhelmed by all the people at the airport but she definitely still recognized them,” said Chelsea Cooper.

“We were so happy to see them,” she said, noting that while “we’ve been very lucky when it comes to COVID,” Rosemary’s first year is time “we’ll never get back.”

Screens were no substitute for Rosemary’s real-life interactions with her grandparents, said Cooper. “She’s really engaging with them and excited to see them,” she said.

It’s a major moment of transition. Rosemary’s first year of life was uniquely isolated. None of her grandparents live nearby, and though her parents had joined a Program for Early Parent Support group, they were only able to attend two in-person meetings before everything went virtual.

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“We’ve basically never done a play date with her because of COVID,” said Cooper. Rosemary has never had a babysitter. “She has had at least one parent almost exclusively focused on her. It feels like you’re on 100% of the time.”

Having the grandparents around meant first-time help caring for Rosemary, a change that Cooper described as “glorious.”

Shortly after Rosemary’s paternal grandparents leave, Cooper’s own parents will arrive; they’re already planning another visit in July, said Cooper, who, along with her husband, has received her first vaccine dose. But she isn’t ready to start planning her own travel, since vaccines for very young children are still in trial stages. That makes Rosemary more vulnerable to infection than her parents, and the transition to a post-vaccine reality “a little bittersweet.”

Still, it was clear to Cooper that things had shifted. “It’s nice to know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “I don’t know how long the tunnel is,” but before it had seemed potentially endless. “Logically I knew it wouldn’t go on forever, but it felt like that.”

Adult siblings reunite

Christina Fairley, right, and her sister Mimi Schuppler, center, watch their brother Tony Chung play with Christina’s son Lachlan, 6, in West Seattle. After Fairley and Chung’s second vaccinations, Schuppler traveled from Austria, quarantined and tested so the family could meet up. The siblings reunited in Fairley’s front yard after more than a year apart. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

In past years, Christina Fairley’s older sister Mimi Schuppler would travel from Austria to Seattle to spend several weeks with her Seattle-based family. Under COVID-19 lockdowns, it wasn’t possible.

But now, with vaccinations, the reopening of travel, and Schuppler’s own willingness to quarantine ahead of her visit and after she landed in Seattle, Fairley and her husband, Alister, were able to welcome Schuppler back to their home in West Seattle, joined by another sibling, Tony Chung, who lives in Bellevue.

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It’s the first time in a year the siblings have all been together, and “it was kind of amazing how quickly we just kind of fell into the groove,” said Fairley.

Since she arrived, Schuppler has been helping with the bedtime routine for Fairley’s 6-year-old son, Lachlan. She’s also attended one of his first baseball games. And they’ve spent hours just talking at the table. “It wasn’t like we had to have anything extra special,” said Fairley. It was just about “appreciating that time that we did have together.”

“This whole year I’ve kind of felt like I’ve almost been holding my breath” out of concern for her family’s safety, Fairley said. Now she feels for the first time a sense of coming out on the other side of that danger.

Mimi Schuppler, left, reunites with her sister, Christina Fairley, and nephew Lachlan, 6, in West Seattle during late April. The sisters, and their brother, Tony Chung of Bellevue, reunited at Fairley’s home after an international flight and more than a year apart. The siblings — who hadn’t been together since a family reunion in Taiwan in February 2020 — hugged, played with Lachlan and then caught up over a dinner. “To reach this point where it feels like we’re coming out the other side fairly unscathed,” says Fairley, “was like the release of a long breath I didn’t know I was even holding.” (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

As it was for so many, 2020 was an isolating year for Fairley and her family. Under the state’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy order, she said, “we locked down fairly tight,” in part because “we had three separate friends that all lost their fathers in a one-month period due to COVID complications.”

Retracting her social circle was a major change for Fairley, who said she and her family members typically “just bounce between each others’ homes.” Before COVID-19, travel had been a way to stay connected to out-of-town relatives, and Fairley’s son had weekly sleepovers with his grandparents, who have a home in Seattle but are currently in Taiwan; Fairley hopes they’ll return by June.

A beloved grandma turns 100 — with company

Last year, Lorraine Molzahn celebrated turning 99 by waving to one of her granddaughters from the balcony of her apartment at The Hearthstone, a retirement community near Green Lake. But for her 100th birthday, Lorraine’s family wanted to do something special for their highly social, newly vaccinated matriarch: They threw her a party — and they found a way to do it safely.

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Hearthstone staff took visitors’ temperatures, said Molzahn’s granddaughter Kristy Phillips. Attendees were able to socialize in one outdoor area, and, in groups of two, allowed in at intervals to visit her grandmother.

Phillips said 25 people showed up. For Lorraine’s family, it was “the first time we’d all been in the same place at the same time” since the pandemic began, said Phillips.

Molzahn loved it. “She was having a great time,” said Phillips. “She’s a very, very social person.” Phillips said Molzahn has always loved volunteering, had been active in her church and once even became pen pals with a man on death row.

And her sense of humor has only grown as she’s gotten older. “She cracked a joke with my younger son, and watching his eyes crinkle up over his mask … that kind of made the whole day worth it for me,” said Phillips.

The isolation had been hard on Molzahn, said her granddaughter. “She kept thanking us,” said Phillips. “I said, ‘Thank you for turning 100 and giving us a reason to have a party.’”

Family and friends catch up during Lorraine Molzahn’s 100th birthday party at The Hearthstone on Sunday, April 25, 2021. 
The pandemic was hard on Molzahn, who is a very social and outgoing person, due to the isolation and lack of activities. Molzahn was excited to see and welcome family and friends to her in-person birthday party, one of the first times she was able to be around a large group of people again since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. “She is constantly curious about people and life,” granddaughter Kristy Phillips said. “She is a lifelong learner.” (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

When she was growing up, Phillips lived two blocks from the farm where her grandparents lived; it was one of the last operating farms in Seattle.

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“My grandma took me everywhere,” said Phillips — to plays, to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, to movies.

She even taught Phillips how to drive. Molzahn often went to Leavenworth to pick up Phillips’ youngest cousin, “so she would tell me, ‘You’re gonna drive me to Leavenworth,’” recalled Phillips, who learned to drive on those trips in her grandmother’s Oldsmobile Cutlass.

“She just decided what was good for me and what I needed, and she made sure it happened,” said Phillips.

At her grandmother’s party, Phillips found herself adopting another of Molzahn’s qualities: “I’m normally a very shy person,” she said. “I’m normally in the corner.”

But this time, she was in the middle of things. She found herself talking extensively with her father’s cousins. Attendees seemed glad to talk to anyone. Maybe it was the small setting, or the buildup brought on by a year with few chances to socialize with those outside our closest circles, or the opportunity to see relatives outside the usual settings of weddings or funerals. It may just have been the sunshine.

But whatever it was, said Phillips, “we were just so happy to be outside and around people that we didn’t care who we were talking to.”

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Dance classes ease the feeling of isolation

Before the pandemic, Joyce Trader found joy in dance, playing tennis and connecting with friends through water aerobics or playing bridge. But when Washington state implemented pandemic lockdowns last year, Trader felt isolated trying to safeguard her health at the age of 85.

“I was anxious going outside and going into the stores,” said Trader, a retired real estate broker and bookkeeper. “It was pretty lonely.”

Then came the vaccine. Soon after she was fully vaccinated, after months of feeling alone, Trader joined a small group of fully vaccinated seniors for a socially distanced West African dance class at the Central Area Senior Center. The weekly Seniors Dancing and Grooving 2 Health class, funded by the King County Veterans, Seniors and Human Services Levy, gave Trader “a feeling of connection,” she said.

“My depression stopped, my anxiety levels went down,” Trader said.  “It was a feeling of release, like life is coming back to something as I somewhat knew it. It gave me hope that things would get better.” 

Joyce Trader attends a socially distanced West African dance class for vaccinated seniors at the Central Area Senior Center May 4, 2021.
(Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Afua Kouyate, executive director of the ADEFUA Cultural Education Workshop, worked with the Central Area Senior Center to start three socially distanced and limited capacity West African dancing and drumming classes for vaccinated seniors, including for people who use wheelchairs, walkers and canes. She said the classes increase awareness of African cultural arts, and help community members connect with one another and engage with movement and mobility. 

“It’s more than dance and movement class,” said Kouyate. “It’s really about that connection to culture and life experiences.”

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Since the class began, Kouyate has heard stories of seniors feeling stronger, more confident in their bodies and having less limitations with movement. Some class members have reported using their walkers less, while others say they are no longer falling in their homes. 

The Central Area Senior Center has partnered with the Seattle Fire Department, Safeway and Albertsons pharmacies and the First African Methodist Episcopal Church to vaccinate seniors and their caregivers in Black, Indigenous and people of color communities. 

“We’ve gotten 85 to 89% of our members or friends fully vaccinated at this point,” said Dian Ferguson, executive director of the Central Area Senior Center. “We continue to get people vaccinated. If the phases allow, we hope to have our grand opening, with multiple activities and programs, open by Aug. 1. We recognize the need for people to gather.”