Scenes Of Isolation Amid Pandemic In The Vermont Countryside

Tara Wray for NPR

Floyd Van Alstyne, 100, and his wife, Marjorie Van Alstyne, 92, live on a farm in East Barnard.

Vermont is a state of vast beauty, yet for all its idyllic Green Mountain landscapes, living there takes a certain amount of grit. The state’s bitter winters can last as long as six months, only to be followed by “mud season” – the character-building preamble to spring that turns the ground to sludge and makes dirt roads impassable.

In the best of times, a healthy portion of the year in rural Vermont requires a type of isolation and self-sufficiency unknown in many parts of the country. But the coronavirus has tested Vermonters like never before. The virus can be particularly dangerous for the elderly, and Vermont’s population is the third oldest by median age in the nation.

In March, Governor Phil Scott issued state-of-emergency orders designed to keep people in their homes. Thinking it an essential moment to document, photographer Tara Wray, a Vermont transplant from Kansas by way of New York City, traveled through her community to take portraits — through windows and from a safe distance — of her older neighbors. She also spoke with them about how they’re coping in the age of social distancing.

Here is what they shared.

Dwight Cabot Camp

Dwight Cabot Camp, 84, still works two jobs, but is on leave from one of his jobs during the lockdown. Camp is also caregiver to his wife, Kay, 82, a licensed funeral director who suffered a brain injury seven years ago.

Camp is a fourth generation Vermonter and active at the Thompson Senior Center in the town of Woodstock, where he calls fellow seniors to check up on them during the COVID-19 pandemic, among other duties. “People are much more talkative lately,” he says, attributing it to the loneliness that comes with living in lockdown.

Sarah Foss

At 96 years old, Sarah Foss can still be seen behind the wheel of her Ford, which she drives all throughout Vermont’s Upper Valley — a region along the Connecticut River that runs the state’s border with New Hampshire.

Foss regularly does volunteer work to help other seniors and members of the community, including grocery shopping and errands for people who can’t drive. She recently helped serve meals to more than 90 people at LISTEN Community Services, a non-profit in White River Junction that supports individuals and families in need.

Foss has lived in Vermont for 60 years and says that despite the easing of certain restrictions, her life won’t be any different until there’s a vaccine. “The disease is all around,” she says. “You can’t see it, hear it, smell it. So I’ll maintain lockdown.”

Anne Herz

A retired nurse, Anne Herz, 84, of Woodstock says that social distancing has made her much more aware of how fortunate she is to live in Vermont and to appreciate the kindness of her neighbors. The lockdown helped her get her spring cleaning done earlier than usual, and has allowed her more time to enjoy the coming of spring.

“I do miss seeing my family, but we have been able to meet (six feet apart) in the yard for a picnic or two,” she says. “I don’t think anything could have prepared us for this pandemic. It is just so different than anything most of us have had to experience. Realizing that there are so many people suffering and dying is hard to bear, but we will get through this together.”

Marjorie and Floyd Van Alstyne

Marjorie Van Alstyne, 92, and her husband, 100-year-old Floyd Van Alstyne, live on a 256 acre farm in East Barnard. Floyd, a veteran of World War II, was an infant when the 1918 flu pandemic ended.

The Van Alstynes say that during the stay-at-home order, they’ve kept to their usual spring routine, including tending to their lumber mill, sugaring and canning. They say the lockdown hasn’t affected them very much.

Abner J. Schlabach

East Barnard resident Abner J. Schlabach, 85, worked professionally as a virologist and has a deep understanding of infectious diseases and the nature of epidemics. He’s lived in Vermont for the past 17 years and says staying more than six feet away from other people is not a problem for people in the state.

“Stay-at-home makes sense, as does social distancing,” he says. “I don’t think anybody can be quite prepared for a situation like we’re in right now, but coping with it is certainly possible. I do see this situation lasting a long time … so I’m sure that it will get old. Which means that we have to deal with the attendant problems now, psychological or otherwise.”

Barbara Folk

Woodstock resident Barbara Folk, 97, is a veteran of World War II, where she was a member of WAVES, the women’s branch of the Naval Reserves. Folk has been inside since the lockdown went into effect, minus the occasional car ride with her daughter, Jill, with whom she lives. She says she has been busy knitting and sewing face masks, which she donates to a local hospital.

“Out of all of this, people may realize what one can do without,” she says. “I am a WWII survivor and we all made large sacrifices for our country.”

Don Munro and Betty Munro

Don and Betty Munro, 79 and 75 respectively, live in Barnard, and apart from missing their children and grandchildren — who live in Ohio — social distancing has not been difficult for them. Don says they sometimes forget the restrictions and have to catch themselves from going in for a handshake or a hug if they run into friends at the nearby general store.

The Munros came to Vermont years ago as seasonal visitors and say they are fortunate to have been able to retire there. “The Barnard community is very tight knit, and are here to help us when we need them,” Don says. “The Barnard General Store is a great asset to the community, and we have very good neighbors.”

Gina Moore

Gina Moore, 98, has lived in Woodstock since 1970. A retired language teacher, she has been keeping busy during the stay at home order by studying French, Spanish, Italian and philosophy.

To complement her studies, Moore attends French and Italian classes on Zoom and talks regularly to friends on the telephone.

“I enjoy solitude, but I am gregarious, too,” she says. “I need both.”

Her studies have provided her with a perspective on the pandemic.

“History repeats itself and I think people are resilient and try to do the best they can under the circumstances,” says Moore. “What else can we do?”

Sophia Stone

Sophia Stone, 79, a widow who now lives alone, has called Barnard home for the past 15 years. Since the lockdown, she hasn’t seen friends, but has talked with her children much more often.

“Knowing I will be by myself every day has made me much quieter and more contemplative, more conscious of living simply and with discipline,” she says. “I have been able to watch spring arrive and the birds come back just the way they always do.”

John Dibble

John Dibble, 85, first came to Vermont in the late 1940s and lives in a house that he built himself. Though he speaks with his four children every night, the most difficult aspect of the lockdown for him is being alone.

Dibble has been unable to visit his wife, Claire, who is in a nursing facility due to advanced Alzheimer’s, but was able to see her through the glass on their 64th wedding anniversary in April. It’s been nine weeks since his last in-person visit.

“I hope to see her shortly in person. I look forward to it every day. I still have her pillow on the bed with me and say goodnight to her every night.”

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