Isolation of older Americans prompts fears amid coronavirus

Older adults and those supporting them worry precautions could further exclude a vulnerable community, exacerbating loneliness and other social ills

Basilisa Riggio keeps a busy schedule. Five days a week, she goes to the Henry Street Settlement Senior Center, located in the Lower East Sideof New York City. At this center, senior citizens such as the 77-year-old Riggio can partake in activities ranging from arts and crafts to yoga.

On any given day, friends and neighbors might catch up with each other over a pool match or game of dominoes, maybe even stop by the gym. Wednesdays and Fridays are karaoke nights. Sometimes, a dozen people show up to hear her and other participants sing.

“I like to sing the old songs, like Only You,” Riggio said.

Riggio is among the approximately 1 million US elderly people who patronize some 10,000 senior centers in this country. “This is our place to be,” she said. “It’s our place to socialize. It keeps us from being home.”

But as coronavirus continues to spread across the US – prompting both general admonitions about social gatherings and specific warnings to “higher risk” persons such as seniors – older adults and those supporting them worry that precautions could further isolate this vulnerable community, exacerbating loneliness and other social ills that hit elderly people hard.

The Centers for Disease Control advises that higher-risk persons “avoid crowds” and “stay home as much as possible to further reduce your risk of being exposed” during a Covid-19 outbreak.

Riggio said she wondered: if they close some schools because of coronavirus, will senior centers like hers be next?

“We’re concerned if that keeps on happening, if they close the center, we’re staying at home,” she said. “We’re not exercising. We’re not socializing. We’re not using our mind.

“The young people, they have families who live with them, or friends,” she also said. “The elderly are mostly living alone – them staying home, some of them might get depressed. That’s not good.”

Cheryl Kamen, program director at Henry Street Settlement Senior Center, said daily visitors declined 50%, to some 100 people, early this week.

“Those who do come are very nervous, and asking a lot of questions,” Kamen said. “We’re making sure to have handouts, but also to be knowledgable about what’s going on so we can answer their questions.”

Kamen said that they are ramping up disinfectant use on highly used surfaces and encouraging seniors to spread out rather than crowd around one table. They’re giving them a brief health screening when they come in – asking how they’re feeling and directing them to a nurse if unwell – and giving seniors packaged meals to eat at home if they’re uncomfortable being at the center.

“That is our main worry right now, even more than the virus – those who are staying away,” she said. “It’s not good for them to be at home alone, not going out.

“Particularly for older adults who’ve had so many losses – not to be able to spend time with their friends, and in a welcoming place, on a daily basis, there’s going to be a toll on their mental health,” she said.

Staff can check in with more vulnerable members by phone. And if the city were to close down senior centers, Henry Street staffers would still come in, and remain in contact with members.

“People want to know that they’re thought of and that somebody cares about them,” Kamen said.

Meals on Wheels America programs across the US, which deliver 220m meals to some 2.4 million seniors every year, also provide key social interaction to many persons. These programs have plans to ensure that seniors have adequate food amid crises. If social contact had to be limited due to coronavirus – such as replacing face-to-face interaction with telephone check-ins – meal recipients might feel isolated again.

“Meals on Wheels volunteers are often the only person that a home-bound senior sees in a given day,” said Jenny Bertolette Young, Meals on Wheels America’s vice-president of communications. “That Meals on Wheels volunteer is vital, a critical lifeline – we know that the impacts of social isolation and loneliness are huge on health.”

“Sometimes, if she didn’t come, I wouldn’t have any visitors all day,” said 100-year-old Helen Isabell, a recipient of Meals on Wheels of North-west Indiana.

Isabell, who lives alone in Gary, Indiana, said she would probably be able to get food from neighbors, but has grown accustomed to daily visits.

“The lady, Margaret, is such a nice person,” she said. “I’ve gotten quite used to her, you know. When she doesn’t come, I really miss her.”

Chris Stanley, who resides in The Villages, a sprawling 55-years-old and up community in central Florida, said that she hadn’t seen many changes to daily life, save for shortages of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.

“We’re going to wash our hands, we’re not going to go stand next to somebody who’s sneezing on us, but we’re going to largely live our lives,” said Stanley, who is president of The Villages Democratic Club.

Should things change – such as limitations on social gathering – Stanley surmised that even The Villages’ very elderly residents would be OK for a day or two.

“But it’s important, in a retirement, to have some structure, and we’re very social people here – a lot of what we do revolves around being social,” she said. “Everything has a social component. Someone losing the structure of their day, and losing their social component, particularly the [older] widows and widowers, might not be healthy.

“They really need that interaction, just as a matter for mental health,” she said of significantly older residents.

Contributor

Victoria Bekiempis in New York

The GuardianTramp

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