Seniors Struggle With Isolation In The Pandemic. Here’s How Some Organizations Are Trying To Help.

Seniors have been isolated during the pandemic, putting their physical and mental health at risk. But some community groups have found a way to lend a hand.

Namita Mathur
Namita Mathur, ADS Coordinator for Universal Metro Asian Services stands in an empty community room at their offices in Vernon Hills on September 2, 2020. The organization provides health meals for seniors, exercise classes and community organized events along with other services. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Namita Mathur
Namita Mathur, ADS Coordinator for Universal Metro Asian Services stands in an empty community room at their offices in Vernon Hills on September 2, 2020. The organization provides health meals for seniors, exercise classes and community organized events along with other services. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Seniors Struggle With Isolation In The Pandemic. Here’s How Some Organizations Are Trying To Help.

Seniors have been isolated during the pandemic, putting their physical and mental health at risk. But some community groups have found a way to lend a hand.

On a recent Wednesday morning, about a dozen seniors in the suburbs are following their instructor’s every move on a Zoom call. Paul Czajkowski stretches his leg, and the seniors do the same. Then he moves toward his camera and reaches into a bag, pulling a Post-It with a number on it out.

“Ok, Bingo time!,” Czajkowski says. This is Bingocize, a combination of Bingo and exercise. It’s one of the many online classes offered around the Chicago area for senior citizens by the nonprofit White Crane Wellness Center.

The participants all know each other from an adult day program run by Universal Asian Metro Services that they used to attend in person in Vernon Hills.

But when COVID-19 hit hard in March, the center had to shut down. The seniors missed seeing each other daily, and said they started to feel adrift.

Namita Mathur, coordinator of the adult day services program, said she and the staff had to pivot quickly and were able to start offering classes to their seniors online in April. Participant Pravesh Kulshreshtha credits Mathur — and technology — with keeping the community together.

“Zoom is a very big boon to us,” Kulshreshtha said. “We were otherwise passing our days in our houses without any connection to each other.”

While Bingocize might sound lighthearted, what these seniors are doing could be key to physical and their mental health. Experts say isolation and loneliness can be particularly hazardous to the elderly.

A 2020 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, “Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults: Opportunities for the Health Care System,” lays out some alarming statistics: Isolated and lonely adults have a 50% higher chance of developing dementia, a 29% higher chance of coronary heart disease and a 32% higher chance of strokes. They are also at higher risk of hospitalization.

Rosann Corcoran manages counseling services for the Council For Jewish Elderly. Shortly after Illinois’ stay-at-home order, the organization started teletherapy, now covered by Medicare and insurance. Corcoran said they were able to keep treating most of their clients.

“We’re really concerned about identifying [a] more passive death wish, more of the laissez-faire attitude — if I have to live this way, I don’t know how long I want to go on,” she said.

Corcoran says seniors who are largely in isolation during the coronavirus have to fight against a mental, cognitive and physical decline.

“Many of our older adults are not getting out to physical therapy, not getting out to the doctor, not going out for coffee with friends, not going to the senior center,” Corcoran said. “They’re just walking and moving less.”

“Time is not on my side”

Dick Scheiberle is an 87-year old veteran and lives in a senior citizens’ home in Skokie. He’s observed firsthand the devastating impact of being trapped inside.

“I see people here who I used to see who were healthy people,” Scheiberle said. “I saw people who used to be on walkers and canes and now they’re on wheelchairs.”

Scheiberle himself is less mobile and active. Because of restrictions at his facility and failing health, he hasn’t been able to go to the places that matter to him, like the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum where he volunteered for years. He misses the times his friends from church would take him to a nearby IHOP for pancakes and conversation. And he fears he won’t see those places again.

“Time is not on my side,” he said. “That’s the reason I want to do things while I can, when I can. The time may come where this may not be able to be possible anymore and I want to do it, but I can’t do it because of all the rules here, all the damn rules and regulations.”

Lydia Torrese is a volunteer with Little Brother Friends of the Elderly. She has been visiting Scheiberle for three years now. They used to decorate his room for the holidays. She’d bring over his favorite foods on the way home from work. They’d watch TV and chat. She enjoyed hearing his encyclopedic knowledge of classic films, especially musicals.

But because of COVID-19, Torrese couldn’t visit him for months. The facility only recently allowed patio visits, mostly with immediate family. Torrese has only been able to visit him once since March and is on the waitlist for another visit. But they talk every week.

And the organization she volunteers for, Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly, is trying to help seniors in other ways. They’re training staff to screen seniors for mental health needs. They are also surveying seniors about what technological help they need.

Because with the right technology and support, seniors have a lot more access to the outside world. They can join free classes like the North Riverside Library’s “Crafternoon” or their book club. The Council for Jewish Elderly has a “Cyber Club” with different topics every day of the week, from meditation to “Legends of Music.” The North Shore Senior Center offers an improv class for people with Alzheimer’s. Some participants say they are having new experiences, meeting new people and that their world has actually expanded since COVID-19.

Tech access still an issue

But it remains a struggle for many. Donna Alston lives in Waukegan with her husband who has Alzheimer’s.

“Care taking shrinks your world,” she said.

Her husband had to stop going to the eight-hour a day adult care Alzheimer’s program when the pandemic hit, and she found herself caring for him all day, every day. But, she was able to take a class on self-care for caretakers — a class she wasn’t able to take when it was in person.

“It just gave me some techniques to look at different ways, to look at different things that I could do to calm myself down,” she said. Techniques included breathing exercises, chair yoga, listening to music and coloring. In the fall, she might look into online Memory Cafes, groups for people with Alzheimer’s and their caretakers.

But access to technology is a persistent and entrenched problem, according to mental health advocates for seniors. Some seniors can only use a phone, and with limited minutes at that.

Deborah Hammond is a Catholic Charities social worker based on the West Side. She does online teletherapy and senior check-ins. She says some of the elderly have very limited phone services. Some elderly don’t have computers or sufficient internet access.

“Seniors in the past may have been going to senior centers or some of the libraries to use their laptops in hot spots,” Hammond said. “Those may not have been available to them, or they are in senior apartments where they couldn’t go down to the senior center.”

Many organizations remain worried about the digital divide. The state’s “Illinois Care Connections” program hopes to bridge that divide with a $1.7 grant from the CARES Act. The grant will help provide isolated elderly with senior friendly tablets, iPads or even “GrandPads,” a popular product specifically for seniors.

For some seniors, it’s a matter of learning to use the equipment they already have.

Carol Hauswald, a retired teacher from Berwyn, literally dusted off her computer when the pandemic started. She picked up some tech skills and joined online groups and classes, including the free “Crafternoon” at the North Riverside Library. She said she was social before the pandemic but now she’s even more sociable.

“Even if we are making paper flowers, we’re talking,” she said. “It’s like the old quilting bees that people had — I’m sure they made the quilts, but then they talked, too. And we’re able to do that.”

She didn’t expect to have a personal renaissance during a pandemic. Now she’s going to online writing conferences and writing an adult mystery novel and nonfiction book. She said she’s even meeting people from Australia in her meditation class.

“Instead of my pond getting smaller and smaller, it’s actually getting larger and larger,” Hauswald said. “So it’s amazing.”

Edie Rubinowitz is a former WBEZ news reporter and producer. She is now a journalism professor at Northeastern Illinois University. You can email her at e-rubinowitz@neiu.edu