BLOG - On filmmaking, caregiving, and life at the Jersey Shore

Sandra Levine is a filmmaker and inspirational speaker, presenting programs to caregivers and health care professionals. Visit to learn more.

Posted May 16, 2020

Celebrating Mom's 90th Birthday
Through a Window

My mother, Dorothy, always made birthdays special for me and my siblings. When we were young, she organized parties where we played Pin the Tail on the Donkey, and opened lots of presents. As we grew older, she invited family to our house and cooked a delicious meal of our choosing; we were even asked to pick a favorite dessert that my mom then baked from scratch. I remember beaming every year while listening to the gathered crowd sing “Happy Birthday” as I waited to blow out the candles. All the rituals—all the love—truly made us feel special.

Today, my mom’s home is Brandywine Living at Toms River, a New Jersey assisted living facility that has been locked down for two months due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In early May, the whole family was trying to figure out how to make mom’s 90th birthday special, after the in-person celebration we had planned had to be canceled.

Dolly, as she’s known, was always an avid gardener, so my sister-in-law, Cathy, ordered an enormous chocolate sheet cake, decorated with a gardening theme. My sister, Diana, sent beautiful flowers and balloons. I created a video for mom of her relatives from across the country sending birthday greetings and recounting cherished memories.

Dropping off the cake at the facility’s front door—knowing we could not go in to be part of the festivities—was surreal. From inside the building, a caregiver, Helen, brought mom and the cake to a window. Helen shot video with her phone, as my daughter, Caroline, my husband, Michael, and I awkwardly stood outside and sang “Happy Birthday.” It was at once poignant and pathetic. Heartwarming and gut-wrenching. My confused mom kept asking,“Why don’t you come in?” We felt terrible that we couldn’t even give her a hug.

Of course, marking a 90th birthday through a window is only a minor inconvenience in the midst of a deadly pandemic, when health and safety matter most. At the time of my mother’s birthday, almost miraculously, her facility had zero cases of residents with Covid-19, while many facilities nationwide were overwhelmed. In New Jersey alone, nursing homes and other long-term care facilities now report more than 27,000 positive cases, and, tragically, more than 5,000 deaths.

Just six days after my mom’s birthday came the seemingly inevitable news: one positive case had been confirmed in a resident, with a second resident recovering in the hospital. My family is saddened and concerned, and we pray for full recoveries. We know the staff will do everything humanly possible to keep the virus from spreading.

For now, we are grateful that—with Brandywine’s help—we succeeded in making our mother’s 90th birthday special. We cherish the photos and videos the staff sent; they’re our only keepsakes of an important milestone we missed.

Most of all, we are blessed during this quarantine to have people inside caring for our mom as if she were their own. Recently, a banner was hung on the front of the facility that quite accurately proclaims, “Heroes Work Here.” I’m confident they’ll continue their heroic work, so hopefully it won’t be long before all the families can celebrate our loved ones’ birthdays—and even ordinary days—in person.