It was the end of February, Northwestern students were slogging through week eight on campus, and Weinberg freshman Victoria da Conceicao was arranging a donation. Her company, Alzheimer’s Brain Box, makes personalized coloring books and care boxes for people with dementia. Da Conceicao had put together a special edition of the boxes for a class project and was giving them away to several Evanston-area memory care facilities.
But by early March, when she was supposed to drop off the boxes, a facility contacted her with an updated policy: nothing and nobody comes inside.
“They [said], ‘If you could wait to send the boxes and the coloring books, that would be great,’” da Conceicao recalled. “I didn't really realize how it could be dangerous … until they told me that.”
Da Conceicao decided to stop doing business, halting production and shipping. She worked with an artist to design and upload free coloring book pages to her company’s website, determined to avoid spreading the virus to long-term care facility residents, a particularly vulnerable population.
Across the country, more than 2,500 of these long-term care facilities have reported coronavirus cases, according to The New York Times. Over 21,000 residents and employees have tested positive for COVID-19, and nearly 4,000 people have died, as of March 16.
“In Washington, so many senior citizens died in that one facility alone, it was crazy. Absolutely heartbreaking,” said da Conceicao, referring to Life Care nursing home in Kirkland, Wash., the site of the country’s first major outbreak, where 43 people died. At a Richmond, Va. facility, currently the worst-hit long-term care center in the country, nearly 80% of residents have contracted the virus, and 45 people have died.
Apart from the risks involved in package delivery, da Conceicao said that recipients typically use her coloring books and activities with caregivers or in groups. “I was worried that it would send the wrong message of, ‘Oh, let’s all get together,’” she said, undermining social distancing recommendations.
Da Conceicao also worried about income. The pandemic has dealt the U.S. economy some massive hits: over 22 million people filed for unemployment in the last four weeks, undoing the 21.5 million added since the 2008 recession.
Though da Conceicao’s coloring books and care packages typically cost $16 and $30 respectively, she said, “If I don't have to charge, I won't—because, you know, there are people that are worried about paying their rent next month.”
Sue Cole, one of Alzheimer’s Brain Box’s first customers, said she wasn’t surprised that da Conceicao had found a way to take her care packages online, saying in an email, “How helpful this is with so many home-bound in an attempt to defeat Covid-19!”
The retired teacher lives in California, across the country from her mother-in-law, who lives in Vermont and has multiple sclerosis-related memory loss.
“[My mother-in-law] could color the pages at her leisure, and as her illness grew more severe, she could mull over the pages for hours,” wrote Cole. “[Da Conceicao] made a big difference in my mother-in-law's life at a very trying time.”
Da Conceicao said she plans to start selling and shipping boxes again when it’s safe to do so. For now, she has 300 boxes sitting in the Kemper Package Center and stacked in her dorm room, waiting to be packed, and a downloadable set of word searches in three languages on her website.