By this point in our adventures with Covid-19, I imagine everyone has heard about the perils of loneliness that often accompany the isolation imposed on older adults, whether they are living in their own home or in a senior community of some kind. The challenge has been what to do about it.
Before Covid-19 changed our lives, there were many opportunities to visit with elders who lived alone as well as those who lived in nursing homes, assisted living communities, memory care facilities and retirement communities of all sorts. Not only did most residents enjoy visits with family, they enjoyed the benefits of living in a community: meals with other residents, a visit to the on-site hair and nail salon, an hour spent exercising in the gym, a brisk walk around the property. But with Covid, all that changed. As of early 2020, even family members have been restricted to outdoor, socially-distanced visits with their loved ones. Residents eat in their rooms, and those without family have contact only with staff.
Even if you don’t personally know any older adults who are isolated at home or in senior living communities, there are ways you can help. You can call local senior centers and senior living communities to see if they could set up phone calls for you with elders who have little family in the area. “Pick up the phone, do a video call, send a card, a note, or flowers,” says senior living design expert Lisa Cini. “By reminding our loved ones that we’re there for them regardless of location, we move their mindset from fear to freedom, and they have some positivity during this increasingly frightening time.” Lisa also suggests scheduling a consistent time to connect, using video where possible, and sending a card or note as something they can keep and continue to enjoy.
In addition to the elders in senior living communities, there are many more older adults who have been isolated in their homes during the pandemic, with minimal outlets for companionship and sharing of interests. With many states opening up more for socializing and safe visits, there are growing opportunities for older adults to play a larger role in their communities and engage in some safely-distanced companionship.
Another relatively new company, Stitch, connects anyone over 50 with other older adults who share their interests. Stitch bills itself as a community – built by members, for members. Founded by Andrew Dowling, the small Stitch team (six members) is devoted to creating a community that helps peoples’ lives improve. Stitch connects people for shared activities, travel, interest groups, friendship, and more intimate relationships. If some of this sounds a little scary, Stitch goes to great lengths to ensure the safety of its members. In addition to the highest level of encryption and certification available today, anyone interested in membership must perform a verification check, which ensures that all members are age-appropriate and prevents con artists and scammers from having access to the site.
In addition to these two new companies, senior centers all over the country are engaging with people in their communities through a variety of online programming that includes everything from book clubs to online work-out classes to grief groups. Today in the U.S., almost 10,000 senior centers serve over one million older adults on a daily basis. Initially shut down because of Covid-19, senior centers today are thriving through their online presence. The centers are staffed by a combination of professionals and volunteers. They are a terrific community resource for anyone over 55 and they serve as a gateway to our nation’s many other senior services. Staff and volunteers are knowledgeable about the many additional programs that are offered to older adults through National Council on Aging (NCOA). Once shunned by the younger old, senior centers are now attracting a growing cadre of boomers. The average senior center member is 75.
With the tremendous strides being made by the senior living industry to open up their communities, the entrepreneurial efforts of people like Presley Kappana and Andrew Dowling, and efforts by volunteers like you and me, the loneliness crisis for our elders should begin to slowly ease.