This is part of a a monthly series of articles underwritten by Health Projects Center and Del Mar Caregivers on senior health
During the pandemic, the limits put on social gatherings and interactions were inconvenient to most people, but for some seniors, it removed much of their needed human contact, isolating people who were already very much on their own.
Seniors who feel lonely or lack regular companionship are at a much higher risk of developing serious health problems, according to a study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association. Loneliness in seniors has been linked to depression, a decline in both mobility and performance of activities of daily living (ADL) as well as an increased risk of death.
“There is an often-cited quote that says being lonely is equal to smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” said Britt Bassoni, director of special projects at the San Benito County Seniors Council. “You don’t realize how devastating it is to your personal health, your outlook, your worldview, and the degree of fear with which you face the world daily.”
A study done by the Centers for Disease Control found that among adults over 50, those who identify as being lonely and who have heart issues have a nearly four times higher chance of death, a 68% greater chance of hospitalization, and a 57% greater chance of emergency room visits.
Life events can also be a factor in isolation, when circumstances beyond a person’s control can leave them with very limited social interactions. In the case of senior Rebecca Salinas, the responsibility of being her husband Jose’s caregiver, whose dementia is worsening, has left her unable to engage with the world as much as she had before.
Before her husband’s health declined, she was active with the Friends of the San Benito County Library and tutored through their adult literacy programs. She also volunteered for St. Vincent’s Thrift Store. Now, as she and her husband approach their 80s, his condition has left her unable to leave home at will.
“His mobility is very compromised,” Rebecca said. “It is very hard for him to get in and out of a car, so he is in the house 24/7. And with his disease, his mind is not where it should be. He doesn’t know who people are or where he is. He doesn’t talk very much and I am the only one he talks to. That means he is very isolated, which leaves me isolated as well.”
Unable to leave her home at will, because of her husband’s reliance on her care, she relies on social media for support.
“The isolation comes from not having people to talk to,” she said. “You need someone to bounce off your cares and worries, someone who knows what you are talking about.”
The stress of watching over her husband can cause Salinas to further shut herself away as well.
“I can’t be with him every single minute of the day,” she said. “I have to go into my room and disengage for a while, for the sake of my own mental health. I have some help from my son now, but when this started I felt totally isolated. I didn’t know how to take care of him and the doctors are too busy to help. And when I tried to talk about what I was going through, people were not interested. And that is a form of isolation as well.”
Residents over the age of 65 make up about 13% of San Benito County, and loneliness has been a top-10 issue since 2018, according to the county’s yearly wellness assessment report. The pandemic complicated things for seniors even more. Nonprofit Del Mar Caregivers, which operates in San Benito County, focuses on the needs of caregivers so they can stay healthy and continue to help those they love.
“Seniors have had to isolate themselves more to reduce COVID risks,” Bassoni said, “making them less likely to have the social interactions they need to stay healthy. Seniors do not have the same strengths and resources to draw from. And they have fewer years to make up for the loss of time and connectedness. For seniors, volunteerism and community involvement have been easy prescriptions to write for happiness. But the pandemic wiped that out for them.”
Alice Oliveira, coordinator of volunteer services at Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital for the last 10 years, saw how the stay-at-home order impacted the people she supervised.
“A big draw for the volunteers is camaraderie,” she said. “They really enjoy seeing each other. When we had to shut down the auxiliary, they became very sad and missed their chance to be active and engaged with others. Being active gives them a chance to use their brains. By volunteering, they get to think and interact, which is something they do not do when they are at home watching television.”
Joanna McMahon is a senior who volunteered at two skilled nursing facilities in Hollister until COVID restrictions made that impossible.
“I am not allowed into the building at all,” she said. “They are closed to the public and the only ones who are allowed in now are the staff or close family members. I was very distressed when I first heard we would not be allowed to come back.”
McMahon had been volunteering for 10 years and suddenly not being able to help was a difficult adjustment to make.
“I feel like someone chopped off my arm,” she said. “As time goes by it gets easier but I still miss it. I used to visit one in the morning and one in the afternoon. You learn about the feelings of a total stranger which creates a special bond and I looked forward to it every time. It filled a purpose for me and it made me feel good.”
With volunteer opportunities still limited because of COVID, there are a few options for seniors. Peninsula Volunteers, for example, currently offers programs that will pay a senior to volunteer at various Hazel Hawkins Auxiliary locations. They also offer an online version of their Little House program, designed to keep seniors active physically and mentally.
Online activities and social media outlets like Facebook might seem a good alternative to in-person contact, but they also offer challenges to an older generation not familiar or adept with computers, tablets or cell phones.
“It seems like an equalizing force,” Bassoni said, “but there are a lot of people it excludes. People with disabilities, for example, are three times less likely to use digital devices. People who are living on their own who don’t have someone to call for help might have a problem with some technical detail and not be able to resolve it. People who are already marginalized become more marginalized and frustrated by a broadband world.”
Loneliness and depression may be hard to spot in seniors who are not otherwise active or have regular social connections. A neighbor or friend may not notice any signs of someone needing help, but an occasional call or visit to check on a senior’s mental health could make all the difference to someone who is otherwise isolated.
“There are things that seniors can attempt to do for themselves, but as their neighbors, we are enabling isolation and neglect if we do not promote inclusion or at least check in,” said Leanne Oliveira, program coordinator for the Aging & Disabilities Resource Connection. “We can volunteer to help in a senior facility or do home visits or calls. We can do grocery shopping or gardening or dog walking or transport a senior to the beach or coffee or Pet Friends to sit with the animals. It’s a few hours from your day, but I can guarantee that seniors will cherish it long after. These are folks that protected us throughout hard times and protecting them now is the very least we should do.”
BenitoLink thanks our underwriters, Health Projects Center and Del Mar Caregivers for helping expand our senior health coverage. Health Projects Center supports more reporting on senior health issues and solutions in San Benito County. All editorial decisions are made by BenitoLink.
Since 1988, Del Mar Caregiver Resource Center (CRC) has served families of persons living with neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Stroke, Traumatic Brain Injury and other conditions that cause memory loss and confusion.