'They talk on the phone every day.' Separated by COVID, longtime couple reunites after 2 years

Rick Neale
Florida Today

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Grinning from ear-to-ear in his wheelchair, holding a bouquet of red roses, Andrew Hammer finally laid eyes on Betty — his wife of 46 years — for the first time since September 2019.

That's the month that Andrew, 92, fell and broke his neck at their Merritt Island mobile home. After hospitalization, the Korean War veteran was taken to Rockledge Health & Rehabilitation Center for therapy, but his health deteriorated and he is essentially bed-bound.

Betty, 87, suffers from dementia and cannot live alone. So after her husband's hospitalization,Florida Department of Children and Families officials placed her in House of Light Senior Living, a Palm Bay memory-care provider.

The Hammers would remain separated for two years because of their specific medical issues and COVID-19 nursing-home lockdowns.

“They have talked on the phone every day. Andrew calls the assisted-living facility every day to talk to his wife. She waits by the phone," said Kim Barrow, case manager with Soter Senior Living & Family Advocates.

"And it's like a high-school-sweetheart love story,” Barrow said.

Friday, the couple was reunited in the Rockledge Health & Rehabilitation Center dining room. With a toast of sparkling white grape juice cocktail, they received an ovation from facility staffers.

"Ooh, that's delicious," Betty Hammer said, placing her drink on the table.

After exchanging greetings and receiving pieces of cake, Andrew and Betty Hammer browsed through family photographs and reminisced with his daughter, Beth Molina. She recently retired from Tropical Elementary on Merritt Island, capping a 32-year teaching career. 

COVID-19 nursing-home lockdowns have similarly separated some older couples around the world. In March, NBC reported that a couple who have been married 55 years reunited at a nursing home in Aurora, Colorado. They had visited over the phone or by looking through a window for about a year.

Also in March, a married couple of 53 years in Rocky Hill, Connecticut, held hands and hugged at a nursing home for the first time since February 2020, Fox61 News reported. The husband is 81, and the wife has dementia.

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Betty Hammer was escorted into the Rockledge Health & Rehabilitation Center dining room to see her husband, Andrew, for the first time since September 2019.

'A whole new beginning'

Barrow said it has been an evolving two-year process to bring the Hammers back together.

“He was supposed to get from the hospital to rehab for a short stay. But once he got there, they realized the severity of the break. And physically, he had declined pretty significantly,” Barrow said.

“Fast forward a little bit. COVID has struck. There is no visitation in any facility. Everything is locked down,” she said.

“Betty cannot be taken up to Rockledge Health and Rehab to visit her husband. Andrew is essentially bed-bound, so he can't get to the assisted-living facility to visit his wife,” she said.

Kim Barrow (left), a case manager with Soter Senior Living & Family Advocates, shows Betty Hammer a video of her husband, Andrew, before she reunited with him for the first time in two years.

Barrow picked up Betty Hammer at her Palm Bay nursing home Friday morning, painted her nails pink, showed her video footage of Andrew, and drove her to Rockledge.

After their dining-room reunion, Betty Hammer moved into her husband's room at Rockledge Health & Rehabilitation Center.

Andrew Hammer served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War as an electrician's mate and fireman aboard the heavy cruiser USS Rochester, which shelled the coastline in support of U.S. troops.

He was honorably discharged from the Navy in 1952. He came to Brevard County and logged a 30-year career at Cape Canaveral with Pan American and Johnson Controls, working from 1964 until his 1994 retirement. 

A framed portrait of Betty and Andrew Hammer in their younger years.

Barrow said Betty Hammer is a talented artist who enjoyed painting landscapes.

"It's a whole new beginning," Molina said, seated between the couple during their dining-room reunion.

"It's a whole new beginning."

Rick Neale is the South Brevard Watchdog Reporter at FLORIDA TODAY (for more of his stories, click here.) Contact Neale at 321-242-3638 or rneale@floridatoday.com. Twitter: @RickNeale1

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