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Daily pep rallies help these 91-year-old twins deal with the coronavirus crisis

Jackie Voskamp, 91, waves a scarf as her twin sister, Joyce Kriesmer, bangs a colander.
Jackie Voskamp, 91, waves a scarf as her twin sister, Joyce Kriesmer, bangs a colander on their balcony at the Vi at La Jolla Village senior living complex in La Jolla on Wednesday.
(Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

For two weeks now, Jackie Voskamp and Joyce Kriesmer have barely left the apartment they share at the Vi at La Jolla Village senior complex. The 91-year-old identical twins are in a high-risk age group for COVID-19, so they have been in self-imposed lockdown.

The sisters have stopped taking their daily one-mile outdoor walks and doing stair-climbing exercises. They’ve also given up shopping, bridge games, visits with their family, and meals outside their apartment. Fortunately, the lifelong best friends have each other’s company in quarantine, and they relish the Vi’s recently launched 10-minute “pep rallies.”

As Californians are ordered to stay at home to decrease coronavirus spread, some are making pacts with small groups of friends.

At 2:30 p.m. each weekday, more than 100 residents head out to their balconies to join employees in the courtyard below in sing-alongs, exercises, cheers, sign-waving and general noise-making to let off steam, soak up some sunshine and get a bit of exercise.

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“We come back into the apartment with a big smile on our faces every day,” said Joyce, who said she loves to “make a big racket” at the rallies by banging a metal colander with a spoon. Her sister, Jackie, calls the events a “big shot in the arm” for the healing power they have.

“Joyce and I find it so uplifting,” Jackie said. “Maybe just being able to scream and sing and holler is good for the soul.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, older adults and people with chronic illnesses are twice as likely to suffer severe effects from an infection of COVID-19. As a result, sheltering in place, avoiding unnecessary physical contact with others and practicing social distancing of six feet or more is recommended.

But social distancing doesn’t have to mean cutting off social contact with loved ones. Staying in touch by telephone, FaceTime, email or letters is one of the most important ways that seniors can reduce loneliness, anxiety and uncertainty while sheltering in place, said Dr. Dilip Jeste, a geriatric neuropsychiatrist and senior associate dean for Healthy Aging and Senior Care at UC San Diego’s medical school.

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“Some people are taking it in stride. They say: ‘Worse things have happened to me and I’ll come out of this,’” Jeste said. “There’s this sense that older people are vulnerable, sick and needy, but that’s not true. They are strong mentally. They have so many strengths they hardly realize.”

Identical twins Joyce Kriesmer and Jackie Voskamp celebrate their 91st birthdays on March 1.
(Courtesy of Cindy Kriesmer Carr)

At the Vi, common areas have been closed and all meals are delivered to residents’ doors, along with pages of puzzles and activities to pass the time. The staff also makes a daily health check-in call to all of the nearly 600 residents in the 21-story buildings.

So far, there have been no diagnosed COVID-19 cases at the Vi, but Jackie and Joyce say they’re not taking any chances. The only time they leave their apartment is to ride the elevator down from their fourth-floor apartment to pick up their mail or delivered groceries.

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Still, not all of the residents at the Vi are strictly adhering to the shelter-in-place rules. Jackie and Joyce said that many fellow residents have the mindset that they’re not afraid of the coronavirus because they survived the Great Depression, wars and past epidemics.

“We’re not all that worried, either,” Jackie said. “At our age, we’re living on borrowed time.”

To pass the time while in quarantine, the twins say they have been reading the newspaper and books, cleaning out cupboards, arranging photo albums, phoning friends and playing a card game known as Spite and Malice. Both sisters said the time goes quickly when you’re passing it with the person you’re closest to in the world.

“We’ve just had a lifetime of friendship that surpasses being sisters,” Joyce said. “It has been a beautiful relationship and it’s only gotten stronger since we became housemates.”

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Kragen writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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