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‘I’m increasingly alone’: Coronavirus intensifies isolation for seniors

Six weeks ago, Judith West, who is in her 80s, lost her husband. For any adult, that kind of transition can be isolating and anxiety-inducing. But for West, the loss was exacerbated by the rapid escalation of coronavirus and its associated restrictions.

“For me personally, it’s a double whammy,” she said in an interview. “Now, I’m increasingly alone.”

Older adults often struggle with feelings of loneliness and separation, which can have adverse effects on health. Under normal circumstances, there are a myriad of programs, housing options and other services designed to keep seniors connected. But as the nation takes a more serious approach to combating the quickly spreading coronavirus, older adults, who are more vulnerable, are also finding themselves without the social ties they want and need.

West said she’s lucky to have supportive children whom she is visiting. She says she is taking great care to have good hygiene and limit her risk of exposure. But she can no longer play bridge with her friends. Her gym is closed. And the activities she prized before her husband’s death are now “even more important” and also almost entirely unavailable to her.

Jewish community centers, synagogues, assisted living facilities and other facilities that provide programs for seniors have mostly ground their activities to a screeching halt over the last few weeks. Protocols and recommendations change daily and sometimes hourly, and these facilities are forced to take the utmost caution with the many seniors they serve.

“It’s painful to us,” said Amy Schectman, president and CEO of 2Life Communities, a group of affordable housing communities for older adults in Massachusetts. “We’re just so desperate to keep people connected.”

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2Life Communities has assigned staff to call every resident for regular check ins to stave off loneliness and make sure every person has what they need. Last week, staff held a fitness class where residents had to use hand sanitizer in the beginning and middle of class and stand ten feet apart. But the buildings are closed to visitors and residents are asked to practice social distancing.

“It’s not the same. It’s just not,” said Schectman. “But we’re not leaving anyone stranded.”

In Pittsburgh, where the JCC is in many ways the center of Jewish life, staff are still trying to figure out in what capacity they can continue programs aimed at seniors, like AgeWell, which holds classes and workshops like painting and tai chi, food and nutrition programs that provide home delivered and social meals.

Sy and Ruth Drescher, both 86, who live in Pittsburgh and are members of the congregation Dor Hadash, said they weren’t sure they knew how to stream the services linked on their temple’s website.

But they said they don’t feel isolated— Sy is an historian and continues his “interchange with other scholars over email.” Ruth has been making paper flowers, which she says is “very satisfying and very rewarding.” They have been taking long walks.

“Seniors are one of the top priorities of our agency,” said Fara Marcus, director of development and strategic marketing at the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh. “It’s a big concern of ours and we’re actively working to talk to officials and see how we can reach our seniors physically.”

In the meantime, she said, they are working on developing a virtual presence that might be of use to seniors. It can be challenging, though, to reach seniors using technology they’re not familiar with.

In Kansas City, Jewish Family Services is no longer organizing home visits, but is instead contacting clients over the phone to make sure they have a two week supply of food, medicine and other essentials. Normally, their “Help at Home” program sends volunteers to help older adults make repairs and avoid hoarding. Now, staff and handymen are only doing safety repairs, like broken fire alarms, or outdoor projects to minimize contact with clients.

Some seniors normally see staff or volunteers every week, said executive director and CEO Don Goldman, and if “now that connection has gone away, that can just feel incredibly isolating.”

Judith West, in New York, has been trying to maintain her “self-sufficiency,” despite the weight of her husband’s passing and the restrictions due to the virus.

“A lot of sickness and a lot of physical health is impacted by one’s mental attitude,” she said. “Maybe experience does give you a broader perspective.”

Correction, March 20: A previous version of this article misspelled Amy Schectman’s name.

Molly Boigon is an investigative reporter at the Forward. Contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @MollyBoigon.


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