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Memories Of Iron Lungs From Polio Era Help Kansas Citians Ease Loneliness This COVID Thanksgiving

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Sharon and Kevin Nuer will eat Thanksgiving dinner alone. And if the weather is good, they may visit later with their grandkids through their screened-in porch in Lee's Summit, Missouri.

Many will dine alone or with just immediate family this Thanksgiving. As coronavirus infection and death rates set record highs, families reflect on what they are thankful for.

Sharon and Kevin Nuer, 72 and 70, both have health issues that put them at risk for COVID-19. Kevin has had a series of organ transplants. Sharon has respiratory issues.

They’re playing it safe and waiting to gather with their large extended family until they have access to a vaccine. But, their historical perspective helps them appreciate the challenges of distributing vaccines during a pandemic.

“I’m old enough to remember lining up for polio (vaccines) in the sugar cubes,” Sharon says. “And that took forever before we felt safe that there would not be polio,” she says.

“We came from an era where we still had friends in iron lungs,” her husband adds.

But that doesn't make this year’s losses much easier. A close neighbor recently died from COVID-19. They watched their first granddaughter get married via Facebook Live and missed celebrating with the grandson when he turned 16.

"I'm old enough to remember lining up for polio vaccines in the sugar cubes. It took forever before we felt safe that there would not be polio."
Sharon Nuer

Sharon is the kind of grandmother who mixes it up with the kids, giving everyone reindeer ears or elf hats for their big, annual family photo. This year she’s not even sure they’ll get a Christmas tree. "I don't know," she says. "Why?"

Instead of the usual spread, Kevin got a turkey breast and small ham for the two of them. “We’ll go right to the sandwiches and skip the in-between,” he laughs.

But Sharon has spoken with some of her elderly neighbors who will be alone over the holidays. She plans to visit them on Thanksgiving and take a plate of dinner.

Massive crowds will be pared down to small, socially distanced groups for the first time in almost a hundred years for the traditional Thanksgiving Plaza Lighting ceremony. Live performances, virtual features and a celebrity guest switch flipper will still be part of the program, which begins at 6:00 p.m.
Franklin B Thompson
Stores w

Public celebrations and holiday shopping

Beloved ceremonies are breaking with tradition this year.

The century-old Plaza Lighting ceremony will be broadcast-only, limiting visitors to small, socially distanced groups.

Some of the Salvation Army's Red Kettles won’t have a human bell ringer, but only a red box where you can donate via your smartphone.

“This is very different from what anybody has experienced in the Red Kettle season since the program started up 100 years ago,” says Doug Donahoo with the Salvation Army.

Of course, Thanksgiving traditionally launches the holiday shopping season. Not this year.

Major big box stores will be closed Thanksgiving Day, including Wal Mart, Target, Best Buy, and Kohls. Gone is the midnight stampede to snag that bargain-priced flat-screen TV. Most stores will open on Friday, but be prepared for COVID-19 safety precautions like social distancing and mask requirements.

Many retailers rolled out their sales early this year, and experts say holiday shopping is well under way, much of it online. Online shopping is expected to increase 33 percent over this time last year.

What consumers are buying has shifted as well. Sales of technology and electronics continue to soar as people settle in to working from home. “Athleisure Wear,” what the industry calls the work-out pants and T-shirts worn instead of office clothes, has been flying off the virtual racks.

The Director of Industry and Consumer Insights with the National Retail Federation, Katherine Cullen, says purchases are also high for items that make our quarantine homes more cozy.

“So we have seen a lot of interest in candles, things to make the space feel comfortable,” she says.

While you may not be buying that new dress for the holiday office party, family PJ’s are a hot item.

“We’re selling a lot of those,” Cullen chuckles. “(People want) fun, comfortable ways to dress up and take some photos with the family.”

A year ago it would have been difficult to imagine many of those family photos taken over computer screens. But many will, as we come together in our isolation over Zoom or Google Hangout.

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Kendall McReynolds, 55, has made it a priority to carry-out a lot of meals to support struggling restaurants. He calls himself "a realist," and is resigned to the pandemic restrictions and a smaller holiday observance. Their Thanksgiving dinner shrank from a dozen to three people. He says he's "grumpier, which he knows is hard on his wife.

What people are learning

I got a slew of responses when I put out a call asking people how the pandemic will affect their holiday experiences. What came across was how many are finding gratitude and purpose as we all try to make sense of this otherwise unhappy holiday season.

I heard odes to nature, appreciation for spending more time outside, enjoying local parks and playgrounds, hiking and biking.

Several mentioned being surprised at how the pandemic-imposed, slower pace of life has allowed more “hanging over the fence” to visit with neighbors. Others said they picked up projects like scrapbooking or starting a journal — plans sidelined by what now feels like needlessly busy lives.

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Laura Remy decided to cancel their big family dinner when COVID-19 cases spiked. Tom, who describes himself as a loner, is finding peace in quarantine, and appreciate how virtual meetings are shorter. Laura misses socializing but has realized there are gifts in being less busy- like self care and caring for others.

For Laura Remy, 60, the new era brings on a feeling of nostalgia.

“It’s reminiscent of days gone by where it was a simpler life,” Remy says. “I have time now to care for other people and I’m enjoying that.”

Her husband, Tom Ribera, 66, is re-evaluating priorities. “It made us stop and look at ourselves, and see where we’re going and what’s really important.”

Mike Rosenburrough, a 46 year old who’s had a stroke, agrees.

Six of his family members have had COVID-19. Fortunately, none of the cases were fatal.

He and his wife will forgo big celebrations this holiday season. They'll scale back Christmas, as they put more money away in the event of another pandemic shut-down. As they do their online shopping, they're asking themselves what they really need versus what they think they want.

“We’re always having to keep up with the Jones," he said. "I think this may be a turning point where some people are gonna say, 'Maybe we should be happy with what we got, and live!'"

Not a bad reminder as almost 5,000 families and friends across Kansas and Missouri will be grieving the loss of loved ones to COVID-19 this holiday season.

I partner with communities to uncover the ignored or misrepresented stories by listening and letting communities help identify and shape a narrative. My work brings new voices, sounds, and an authentic sense of place to our coverage of the Kansas City region. My goal is to tell stories on the radio, online, on social media and through face to face conversations that enhance civic dialogue and provide solutions.
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