With visits restricted, 109-year-old who lived through Spanish flu turns to FaceTime to connect with family

By | April 16, 2020

Sitting in her reclining chair on the third floor of a Brandon, Man., personal care home home last week, Jemima Westcott decided to check in on her family.

Since the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in Manitoba in March, facilities like the one where Westcott lives have been on high alert, with many restricting access to visitors. For Westcott — known as “Mime” to her family — that means finding other ways to stay in touch.

About 200 kilometres away in Winnipeg, Raunora Westcott’s phone rang. It was a FaceTime call from Jemima, her 109-year-old grandmother.

“I was just, like, kind of in shock and awe that she had the abilities to call me,” Raunora said, laughing.

For Jemima, who has three living children and 15 grandchildren, family is everything — so when she faced the challenge of not being able to see them anymore, she found a way around it.

Jemima Westcott, 109, has learned how to use FaceTime to stay in touch with her family during the pandemic. (Raunora Westcott/Twitter)

“Her main focus was just making sure that her family is A-OK through this pandemic.… She was asking me how my brother and sister are doing, and my family, and what the job situation is like,” Raunora said.

“She gets the question a lot about the secret to longevity and she’s always answered very similar: the fact that she has such close, strong relationships. That’s one thing that she holds in high importance in her life.”

Jemima said the past few weeks have also made her think back to her early childhood, during the 1918-19 influenza pandemic.

More than a century later, things have changed a lot, she said — there was no FaceTime to help families stay in touch during the Spanish flu outbreak, for example.

But people also didn’t interact as much as we do now, she says, which she thinks is part of why the disease caused by the new coronavirus has been able to spread so quickly.

“Things were very different then. People didn’t mingle. We didn’t have [as much] contact,” said Jemima.


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Public health approaches to dealing with viruses have changed a lot, too.

Jemima recalls being told to cover her mouth and nose if she passed by a house known to have a case of the flu in the small farming community where her family lived. She also remembers still going to school during the 1918 pandemic, while today, in-person classes have been suspended.

But other things haven’t changed all that much, Jemima said — like the handkerchiefs (with a few drops of eucalyptus oil) her mother gave her and her siblings to cover their faces when they went outside.

Raunora said hearing her grandmother talk about that time in history during their FaceTime call gave her a new perspective on the COVID-19 pandemic unfolding now.

Jemima Westcott with family at her 109th birthday party in early January. (Submitted by Ron Westcott)

“That was the first time I had actually heard that story, so it was really interesting,” she said. 

“It just made me think, ‘Oh, in a way, lots of things changed — but in a way, some things haven’t really changed when it comes to isolation and the face masks and things like that.'”

Jemima said the physical distancing measures in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 have taken a toll, but she knows staying home is the best way to slow the spread of the virus. 

Jemima Westcott with son Ron Westcott’s provincial curling championships jacket. (Submitted by Ron Westcott)

She misses seeing her family, eating lunch with her neighbours and watching her favourite sports teams — including some of her family members who are professional curlers — play on TV.

But Jemima said she’s happy to stay inside with a stack of books and a bowl of raisins until this is all over, and she hopes others will do the same.

“Just stay home. Stay home and content yourself with reading or something,” she said. “Things will be OK.”


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