By MAKENA HUEY | Downtown & Uptown News
People 65 years and older are at high-risk for severe illness from COVID-19, but during a time when staying home and social distancing are essential to remaining healthy, this same age group is also at risk for something else: loneliness.
Social isolation — or the physical or psychological distancing of individuals from their desired or needed relationships with others — puts senior citizens at a higher risk for health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease and even death, according to the National Institute on Aging.
A 2018 AARP study revealed that prolonged periods of isolation carry the same health risks as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
In San Diego County, over 115,000 senior citizens live alone, according to the California Department of Aging.
Helen Rowe Allen, an 80-year-old San Diego resident, said she is coping well with the isolation resulting from the coronavirus because she has lived alone for a long time, has a self-reliant personality and is highly involved in the local community. The retired lawyer and journalist currently spends her time reading, gardening, spending time with her dog Mr. Squeakers and engaging in community outreach.
However, she said she was caught off guard by the lack of concern people have for the physical and mental health of the elderly and believes that the pandemic has made this apparent: Many passerby do not wear a mask or respect social distancing guidelines when near her and are apathetic to whether seniors in general are struggling with social isolation.
“I think most people don’t give a damn about seniors,” Rowe Allen said. “I think we’re thought of as expendable and a drag on society — that we’re just superfluous to community life.”
Although she is not interested in receiving wellness calls from organizations herself, she said she recognizes their value for seniors who are less engaged in their community.
“I think [wellness calls] are essential for some kinds of seniors who feel that they’re isolated and unable to create an environment that sustains them on their own,” Rowe Allen said.
AgeWell Services has expanded its Social Calls Program, in which city staff members check in on local senior citizens and connect them with enhanced life resources via phone calls. “Some of the participants have reported getting the phone calls as the highlight of their day,” Kristi Fenick, district manager of The City of San Diego Parks and Recreation Department, wrote in an email. “It’s actually a win-win for both parties; our volunteers who make the calls are seniors themselves, so making the phone call is also rewarding to them.”
The program has been in existence for about 15 years, but when seniors were advised to self-isolate due to COVID-19, the organization increased its outreach efforts and extended its days and hours of operation. Since the pandemic, the organization has more than doubled the number of seniors on the call list, Fenick said.
“Most of the people I speak with understand the importance of reaching out to others and how a lack of social contact can negatively impact people,” Fenick wrote. “I think there definitely could be more information about it, especially for folks who don’t have a computer at home and are not connecting with family members virtually.”
One long-time patron, a 91-year-old woman named Miriam, said she is especially thankful for the service because she lives by herself and has no nearby relatives. She looks forward to receiving the daily calls and describes the volunteers as reliable and pleasant.
After the coronavirus forced Serving Seniors to drastically alter its services, the nonprofit organization launched its Connections Program in April as a way to supplement its usual in-person activities to keep seniors active.
Through this program, volunteers regularly call senior citizens to prevent loneliness – an overlooked crisis that Serving Seniors president and CEO Paul Downey said has existed long before anyone ever heard of the coronavirus.
“What I hear from people is that seniors are invisible,” Downey said. “… People don’t see them, they don’t want to look at them, they don’t interact. Just making that extra effort to say hello or wave and make a connection is something easy that we can all do.”
Downey said he notices two different groups of seniors who are struggling: those who were already socially isolated before the pandemic and those who are accustomed to being socially active but are now forced into isolation due to the pandemic. He hopes this program benefits both groups.
“They say it just brightens their day,” Downey said. “The simple fact that somebody is interested and knows their name and cares can make a profound impact on that person’s outlook and mental health.”
Upon recognizing an even more urgent need in the community as a result of the coronavirus, The I Did Something Good Today Foundation — a nonprofit dedicated to combating social isolation in the senior community — created GoldenTALK, a 24-hour nationwide hotline intended to be a safe space for people 60 and older.
What began with nine volunteers grew to over 150, and since its establishment in March, the Los Angeles-based organization has had over 4,000 calls.
The foundation’s executive director Kimberly Lewis came up with the idea when she worked as a police department operator and received calls from seniors who were lonely and wanted someone to talk to.
Lewis said COVID-19 has heightened the impact of an already serious issue.
“[The coronavirus] is having a huge effect on seniors as a whole but definitely the seniors that are used to being independent and going out for themselves,” she said.
GoldenTALK volunteers ensure the seniors who call are connected with any resources they may need and ultimately form meaningful relationships with them.
“They love when they’re able to just pick up the phone and call someone,” Lewis said. “They say that it makes them feel better and makes them feel safe. They have their favorite volunteers that they love to talk to.”
One of those volunteers is Gary Helton, who devotes three hours every night to giving and receiving phone calls to and from fellow senior citizens.
“One of the beautiful parts about this for me is that I feel like I’ve developed genuine friendships with these folks over the phone,” he said. “I haven’t even ever met them personally, and yet oftentimes we know so much about each other.”
Helton even calls one woman his “big sister” because she is just like family. They both look forward to their nightly conversations, discussing their favorite books, movies and travel destinations.
“I was totally expecting it to be a one-sided thing where they call me for help and I help them … so for me to actually develop really close friendships as a result was surprising to me, and I think that speaks to what’s going on with elders all over the place,” Helton said.
Lewis echoes this universal need for human interaction and said she wishes more seniors knew about the various resources available.
“We love making them feel good, and everyone should want to make them feel good,” Lewis said. “They’ve given a lot to society and have helped build our world, and they deserve to have a peaceful and fun exit, for lack of a better word. For the rest of their life, they should not want for anything; they should be able to just enjoy.”
The leaders of these three organizations said they encourage individuals to reach out to and stay connected with senior citizens — not just during the pandemic but always.
To add yourself or a loved one to the city’s social calls list, call 619-236-6905 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
San Diegans who want to sign up for the Connections Program can call 619-246-4461. The organization also has a Virtual Care Package page on its website dedicated to sharing resources for seniors during the pandemic, including instructions on how to use Zoom and FaceTime as well as a list of virtual activities through which to pass the time.
To participate in GoldenTALK or request scheduled wellness calls for a loved one, call 888-604-6533.
— Makena Huey is a senior at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, pursuing a major in English and minor in journalism. The San Diego native was the editor-in-chief of Currents magazine and is currently the managing editor of the Graphic newspaper.