BELFAST, Maine — Karen Caswell and Diane Davis grew up in Belfast together during the late 1940s and have known each other since they were four years old.
They swam together in Belfast Bay, which back then was full of chicken feathers from the poultry processing plants that dominated the waterfront. Davis was a bridesmaid at Caswell’s wedding. But as life went on — and got busier — the old friends lost touch.
Three years ago, Davis moved into the Deborah Lincoln House, a small private care facility for older women in Belfast, and was more than surprised to learn that a Karen Caswell would be the next resident there.
Could it be the same person as the girl she once knew?
Davis and Caswell, now both 76, are spending their golden years together at the rambling six-resident Victorian home, which was established more than 100 years ago.
Living with an old friend has been a boon, especially in this past year of the pandemic. The friends work puzzles, watch old television favorites such as “Murder, She Wrote” and “Perry Mason,” and even road-tripped in the home’s van to an animal shelter to adopt a cat named Beverly who keeps a watchful eye on the community.
“She’s so much fun,” Caswell said of the cat.
With the home’s other residents, the women have formed a pod, allowing them to ward off isolation and loneliness while keeping themselves safe from the coronavirus.
“The ladies do eat together. They spend a lot of time in their room, and they also spend a lot of time down in the community area,” Hilary Small, the director of the Deborah Lincoln House, said. “They just wear their masks.”
It’s been challenging for the women and residents at group homes everywhere, Small said.
“Their families can’t just come in and visit.”
But Davis and Caswell aren’t focused on the challenges of the last 12 months.
Davis, who formerly worked as a pharmacy aide, a health assistant and a nurse’s aide, lived in an apartment before moving into the home. She misses shopping and running errands — but said she feels safe and content now.
“It’s a loss, but not a big loss. I’m grateful for what I have,” she said. “I feel more comfortable being here. It’s less worrisome. I like being with other people, rather than being by myself.”
Caswell, who worked most recently as a dietitian, previously lived alone. She said the pandemic has taken some things from her, too.
“I miss the freedom of being able to go out and go inside the bank, to do my own things, to ride in somebody else’s car,” she said.
The coronavirus pandemic isn’t the first public health crisis the two friends have faced. When they were children, the fearsome threat of polio hung over their lives. It’s why their concerned parents had them swim in the bay, rather than the nice saltwater pool in Belfast City Park, which they thought might be more dangerous.
“I wanted to swim in it so badly,” Caswell said.
When it was developed in 1955, the polio vaccine put an end to that disease.
The women, who were scheduled to receive their second COVID-19 inoculations this week, are hopeful that this vaccine will also be a harbinger of a slow return to something approaching normal.
“We’re looking forward to a safer world,” Davis said, adding that she’s eager for her final shot. “I’ll be glad. I’ll feel better. More relaxed.”
But they’re not going to rush it.
They plan to continue wearing face masks. The home’s visitors area will still be separated by a plastic barrier to keep guests and residents distanced.
All of the home’s 10 employees have been vaccinated, said Small, who “cried like a baby” when she received the shot.
“For months and months and months, we administrators have lost sleep, trying to keep COVID out of these homes and save lives. It’s emotional,” she said. “The residents and staff are feeling that there definitely is hope. That if you get COVID, you’re not going to die.”
For now though, it’s business as usual — if anything can be considered “usual” this year — for the denizens of the Deborah Lincoln House. They’ll keep on doing puzzles, playing with the cat and watching movies. Davis will keep knitting dozens of mittens to donate to the community.
There are two vacancies in their home, and they are eager for some nice women — new friends, they hope — to come fill them.
“People used to call this the ‘Old Ladies’ Home,’” Davis said.
“They don’t realize it’s special,” Caswell added, adding that she does have one hope for some good that might come from this hard time.
She believes it’s possible that the coronavirus pandemic will lead to positive changes in how people live. All too often, people lose track of what’s truly important.
“More of this, more of that. People striving instead of living,” Caswell said. “I think maybe this whole thing has changed some people’s perspectives about what’s really important in life. Your friendships matter. Your family relationships matter. People matter.”