‘I could get sick looking at four walls’: older Americans left out in the new normal

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Marion Coleman walks six long blocks from her Athens, Georgia, home to a nearby McDonald’s several times a week. While Coleman, 73, likes the sausage biscuits and other breakfast items, her outings to this fast-food restaurant are very much about feeding her soul, not her body.

Like many other US senior citizens, Coleman has been avoiding most social activity because of Covid-19. Going to McDonald’s on foot means she can see friends without riding a bus. Coleman, who believes “strongly” in wearing a mask, recognizes the risk – but fears there’s also danger in staying home.

“I’d go crazy sitting there all day long if I didn’t get out, talk to a soul. Internet’s fine, but I still like talking to somebody, you know,” she said. “I could have a mental breakdown, or I could get sick looking at the four walls.”

Coleman started venturing out, in part, because the outpouring of support she had received early into the coronavirus pandemic has largely stopped.

“At the beginning, I had a lot of other friends, they would come over, they would bring me food,” said Coleman, who praised the Athens Community Council on Aging for continuing to bring her food and essentials. “It’s just like a funeral. After a funeral, people take really good care of you for a while, but then everything wears off. It gets back to the same old normal. No one comes to the house too much.”

While social distancing practices that have been in place for about six months have started to loosen in many parts of the country, some seniors face the possibility of being left out – like Coleman. As much of the rest of the country starts to try and live a new normal, vulnerable groups like the senior citizens risk being left behind – as fears of the virus remain for them.

A vaccine, were one to become available, might not be a panacea, either. Seniors face barriers of access to healthcare, such as transportation to medical professionals and high costs. This, coupled with the fact that there’s no guarantee of 100% efficacy in any vaccine, means that many might still remain stuck at home even if much of the country resumed its pre-pandemic activities.

Charlie Aron, 84, wears a mask as she receives her food delivery in John Knox Village on 7 August. About 900 retirees live in the South Florida senior community.
Charlie Aron, 84, wears a mask as she receives her food delivery in John Knox Village on 7 August. Photograph: Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

Many seniors abide by more strict social distancing guidelines than younger persons, because they are at greater risk. Senior services organizations are working tirelessly to provide help, but staff and volunteers can’t closely interact with their clients in person. So, as things reopen, many face a difficult choice between worsening isolation or risking potential illness.

Marie Patten Blatter, executive director of the Westlake Meals on Wheels, in suburban Cleveland, Ohio, said the organization’s drivers do deliver meals Monday through Friday and check on the recipients, and have done so throughout the pandemic.

“Some of them are very cute and open the door and try and invite in the drivers,” she said of the seniors, but “drivers know they can’t” go in. The program has ramped up socially distant communication, such as enacting phone-trees and delivering crafts or birthday bags. But, Blatter said, she is concerned about the coming months, when feelings of isolation worsen even in good years.

“Part of me says we lost part of a generation, almost,” Blatter said. “It’s not just the seniors, obviously. From a statistical perspective, everyone’s focused on the numbers, but we also have to look at the generational gaps that are being created.”

“Quite a few of [our] recipients have already lost their children. They’re literally by themselves,” she said. “I think we all have heard the loneliest people die of a lonely heart. Our focus is not to allow them to sense that loneliness. That’s why we are trying to at least plan ahead, when winter comes.”

Carol Wren, who lives in The Villages, a massive Florida retirement community, said that she and her husband have been taking coronavirus very seriously.

A woman eats ice cream inside a cafeteria at John Knox Village.
A woman eats ice cream inside a cafeteria at John Knox Village. Photograph: Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

Wren, president of The Villages’ Mystery Lovers Book Club, said that they have been able to engage in some activities; she and her husband can play golf, using their own cart, and they have “cautiously” met with some friends. But, they’re still limiting what they do. Wren’s book club now meets on Zoom.

“We were so used to having so many social activities and group activities here that we just can’t do any more. That restricts our human needs for contact,” said Wren, 70. “Personally, I don’t think it’s going to end in short order. We have too much to fix.”

“Getting some kind of a vaccine or a cure is a slow process,” she said. “Everybody kind of jokes about the new normal … yeah, this is kind of the new normal. Things have changed. We have to adapt.”

Janet Fischer, vice-president of senior services at New York City’s Henry Street Settlement, said she is worried about long-term isolation affecting seniors’ health, as it creates stress.

“The brain just goes off into this imbalance, and there’s this whole mind/body interaction,” she said. Betsy Smith, a director at Henry Street Settlement, said they have seen “a decline” in seniors’ emotional health in the past few months.

“No matter what happens, they want to get out of their apartments, they want to socialize with their friends out on the street, in our senior center or on the phone,” Smith said. “When everything was shut down in March, we didn’t really see a difference in their emotional health, because we jumped in as an organization … making sure they were well and healthy.

“Now that their critical needs have been addressed, our seniors, especially when warm weather came around, they wanted to get out and be able to socialize with their friends.”

“They are very, very upset that our offices have not reopened,” Smith said.

Some seniors, however, have become more accustomed to new norms, said Rachel Hughes, director of Henry Street Settlement’s senior companion program

An older woman sits in the garden of John Knox Village, a retirement community in Pompano Beach, Florida.
An older woman sits in the garden of John Knox Village, a retirement community in Pompano Beach, Florida. Photograph: Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

“Most of my active seniors, they’re pretty resilient, and they’ve adapted quickly. Going to the bank and the store, wearing masks, socially distanced,” she said.

Dorothy Sklar, an 86-year-old Staten Island, New York resident, is a senior who appears to have adapted to life during Covid.

“I’m all right, because I don’t mind spending time by myself,” she said. “I have things in my apartment to keep me busy.”

Sklar said she has had face time with people she really wanted to see.

“I don’t go to people’s homes, but we meet outside, we can go for a walk, sit on the bench and talk,” she said. “And, I can walk to a Chinese food [restaurant].”

Back in Athens, Coleman finds herself having to do more than adapt. She worries that she will have to take more risks than visiting McDonald’s. There have been cuts to ride services for seniors, Coleman said, and she has errands that can’t be done on foot.

“I’ve been afraid to ride the city bus,” she said. “I’m going to have to get brave enough and try and ride the city bus, because I need to go to Walmart.”

Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘I could get sick looking at four walls’: older Americans left out in the new normal

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