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A couple of times a week, Gordon Best leaves his home in Windsor to drive senior citizens to medical appointments and grocery shopping, among other errands.
While the destination is the goal, the conversations along the way serve a deeper purpose for Best, a senior himself at 78, and for his passengers.
“It’s interesting to talk to them and find out how their life has played out over the years,” said Best, who volunteers through Senior Solutions, the Springfield, Vt.-based council on aging for southeastern Vermont. “I think it’s a large, important part of volunteering, to let them feel comfortable, to let them know that you’re interested in their well-being.”
Winter has long been considered especially problematic for older adults coping with isolation. The weather can make it difficult to leave home, exercise and socialize. And this year, senior service providers are even more concerned as COVID-19 infection rates climb and older adults who are more at risk of developing complications from the disease are encouraged to stay home.
“We’re very worried,” said Kathleen Vasconcelos, executive director of the Grafton County Senior Citizens Council. “We know that isolation is not only going to continue to be a problem, but become a great problem in the winter months.”
The Lebanon-based nonprofit operates eight senior centers throughout Grafton County, which have remained closed since March. People who once ate lunch with friends at the senior centers now get food home-delivered or stop by outside for grab-and-go meals and a chance to briefly visit staff.
“The meals that we provide take care of the physical, but the mental health aspect is a real concern for us,” Vasconcelos said. “For the months ahead, it would be really great if everyone is just aware of this need of older adults in their community and do their part to reach out to them in their neighborhood.”
Among the people receiving weekly meal deliveries from the Grafton County volunteers, the majority live alone. Staff have been reaching out to them with phone calls to see what they need or simply to chat.
“We are hearing from some clients (that) there is a general feeling overall of being tired, being depressed, looking ahead to what may be a very long winter, so we are making sure we have that daily touchpoint with our clients,” Vasconcelos said.
Providers — and seniors — now have one advantage they didn’t have when stay-at-home orders started in March: experience. Instructors and participants have gotten more comfortable with taking part in Zoom sessions.
“I’m a people person and I have to say of course I miss people. When you’re on Zoom it’s like you’ve actually seen them in person,” said 87-year-old West Lebanon resident Carolyn Stone, who participates in exercise and art classes online.
Instead of returning to Florida where she spent the last 25 winters, Stone will remain in West Lebanon due to the pandemic. She stays active by going for regular walks, and she purchased a treadmill in anticipation of winter so she can still exercise. She also figured out a way to play — and teach — cribbage over Zoom.
“I think that you have to fill your life with some activities or it’ll be a long winter,” Stone said.
Vasconcelos said staff also know that not everyone has internet access or is comfortable using it. Meal recipients also get other activities, including gingerbread kits and coloring pages. The council has started a sketchbook project throughout its eight senior centers so participants can draw or paint about what they’re experiencing. A pen pal program and phone bingo games are also under consideration.
“We’re trying to be creative, and the staff is getting together on a daily basis to really brainstorm,” she said.
Volunteer programs have undergone a change to make them safer during the pandemic.
Drivers and passengers all wear masks. Home visits — a mainstay of Senior Solutions’ various volunteer programs — have been reduced or eliminated altogether. In the summer, visits would take place outside and were socially distanced. Volunteers who choose to continue visiting in the winter indoors are asked to become familiar with other people in the recipient’s social circle. They also keep in touch through phone calls and sending letters.
“We can’t avoid it,” Vicki Mastroianni, home visitor coordinator at Senior Solutions, said about isolation. “We know people are going to be struggling this winter. I think we’re trying to do what we can to make sure people are connecting with us.”
While some older volunteers have decided to step back due to the pandemic, others have stepped up and are confident in the safety protocols.
Barb Riotte, of Springfield, who volunteers with Senior Solutions, regularly speaks to a woman who is homebound after a fall.
“We’ll talk on the phone for an hour or so, chitchatting about this and that,” said Riotte, 68, who started volunteering during the pandemic to give rides and shop for seniors. “I think most of these people are pretty isolated. They’re feeling the brunt of all this, that’s for sure.”
Riotte’s 97-year-old mother lives in Iowa and has inspired her to keep volunteering.
“It makes me feel like I’m kind of helping her when I’m helping somebody else,” she said.
As a volunteer driver for Meals on Wheels, Craig Coleman, of Springfield, realizes that when he makes weekly deliveries, he might be the only person they may see that day, or for longer.
“Some people, they really depend on the food for Meals on Wheels; some people they don’t really care about the food,” said Coleman, who also volunteers with Senior Solutions and through Green Mountain RSVP, among other organizations. “I can show people that when I listen to them, I hear what they say and people respond to that.”
Coleman, 74, recently helped a woman take her dog to the veterinarian.
“What I enjoy most from volunteering is providing emotional support,” he said.
And those visits can make a difference for someone.
“It really does help their health,” said Joann Erenhouse, community relations director at Senior Solutions. “It’s not medicine and it’s not magic but just the fact that there’s a live person who says hello to you. … I think it’s almost as important as the food they drop off.”
Isolation in communities
Community nurses are also paying close attention to residents who live alone in their communities, particularly in more rural areas, and are at risk of becoming more isolated. The majority of the people they serve live alone.
“We’re very worried about what’s going to happen to many of these clients who we take care of on a regular basis,” said Laurie Harding, co-director of the Upper Valley Community Nursing Project.
While the internet has provided opportunities to stay connected and engage in telehealth, it doesn’t work for everyone — and it comes with a cost.
“That is an additional situation for a lot of people, just the financial burden of having an additional expense every month,” said Ellen Thompson, who chairs the nonprofit’s board.
Some communities have phone chains and have recruited volunteers to check in on older residents. Thompson said it’s not ideal, but it’s “better than no connection.”
Advocates are also concerned that expanded isolation can contribute to an increase in fall rates among older adults.
“They’re not going out, they’re not walking around, they’re not even getting down the stairs or the main level of their building because they’re afraid they’re going to run into somebody,” Thompson said. “They’re feeling threatened with this virus.”
Esther Kibble turned 100 on Tuesday, but due to the pandemic, her family was unable to celebrate in person with her at Cedar Hill Continuing Care Community in Windsor because of COVID-19 precautions.
“It’s sad. We’ve been looking forward to this for so long,” said Kibble’s daughter, Kathy McNeil, of Windsor. “It stinks, but you just have to do it. We’re all in this together, and we want her safe.”
Staff had a party for her on Monday, complete with a cake. Prior to the increase in cases, McNeil, 68, and her sisters were able to visit their mother at the continuing care community.
“Sometimes she’s good, sometimes she’s really sleepy,” McNeil said. “The visits vary, but it’s good to just get eyeballs on her.”
While they can still keep in touch by phone, Kibble’s dementia can make it harder to get a conversation going over the phone.
“I’d rather entertain her in person,” McNeil said.
Providers and volunteers encourage people to keep their heads up and for community members to help where they can.
“I think a lot of us now during COVID-19 are in self-isolation and we’re just getting a little taste of what so many of our senior citizens experience and have been experiencing for several years. And it’s driving us crazy. Can you imagine what it’s doing for our older folks?” said Erenhouse, of Senior Solutions. “Life gets smaller and smaller and smaller until there’s very little left, and we have to be able to step in and let these people know that we care about them.”
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