Merrilyn Tombrinck, an 80-year-old forced to ride out the coronavirus pandemic alone in her Topsham home, misses the days when she could get out and see other people. Courtesy People Plus

TOPSHAM — Although she has lived alone for about 10 years, Merrilyn Tombrinck experiences a deeper kind of solitude these days, forced to stay home most of the time due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I stay in the bed a lot longer than I would normally, if I were younger,” the 80-year-old Topsham resident said. “If it’s cloudy and rainy or snowing I just say, ‘ah, no reason to get up, I think I’ll just snooze for a little while.’ I get depressed, and lonely, and frustrated.”

Tombrinck is not alone. Fear, confusion and loneliness are impacts seniors can experience from prolonged isolation, according to Stacey Frizzle, executive director of People Plus, a Brunswick-based organization that works to keep older adults active and engaged.

Tombrinck does see her grandson, who puts her trash out each week, and talks regularly by phone with her niece. But the silence the rest of the time can be tough, particularly after she recently had to have her 14-year-old dog put down. “Even though she didn’t talk, it was another body in the house with me.”

“I turn the TV on, and I don’t always sit and watch it, but it kind of fills the void a little bit,” Tombrinck said. “It’s a bad habit, I think, but at least I hear voices.”

One new voice she’s heard has come from People Plus. She is one of about 60 seniors who benefit from the organization’s new “friendly phone call” program.

“I tell people, ‘I live alone, so when I get out and talk to people, I get diarrhea of the mouth,'” said Tombrinck. “When you don’t talk all day, and then you talk to somebody, you just can’t stop.”

“Somebody said to me, ‘you have such a good sense of humor.’ I said, ‘I have to. It’s gotten me through life.'”

People Plus has about 1,000 members who are seniors, of which 75% are female, according to Frizzle. The organization estimates that about 30% live alone, 20% are caregivers for a spouse, and the rest are couples.

Census.gov estimates of the nearly 36,000 people who resided in Sagadahoc County last year, just over 22% were 65 and older. In Cumberland County, which the website estimated had 295,000 residents last year, the senior population was 18.4%.

People Plus initially reached out to about 400 seniors about being part of the phone call program. “They’re thrilled, they’re flattered to be asked,” Frizzle said. “They’re happy to be checked in on.”

Frizzle said the isolation she sees leads to depression, which then leads to bad health, lack of nutrition and personal hygiene. “The seniors, over the last five or six weeks, (are) becoming increasingly frustrated, increasingly worried and nervous about how long this is going to go.”

Dartha Vance of Cumberland, at right, misses her two children, who both live out of state, but she keeps busy with her work as a hair dresser and taking walks with friends, at a distance. Courtesy Dartha Vance

But having someone to talk to regularly, to ask questions about the latest developments with the pandemic “has been really useful,” Frizzle said. “Our role at People Plus has been to always stave off isolation. These calls … are sort of replacing the energy that a person might get from coming to the People Plus center, and having interactions, classes, and clubs and social time.”

The University of New England’s Center for Excellence in Aging and Health in Portland, founded by Dr. Tom Meuser, offers an outlet to that energy as well. The Legacy Scholars, a group of 430 people 55 and older, discuss research on aging through online Zoom video sessions.

Meuser, a geriatric psychologist and professor of social work at UNE, pointed out that a person’s social network tends to narrow following retirement, partly because their emotional energy is put into “fewer but stronger social bonds.”

“You have a natural process of restriction of social network butting heads with an imposed process from this virus and the required social distancing,” Meuser said. “… Active engaged people who never thought of themselves as older now feel targeted by the disease, (and) the isolation limits their ability to do things that matter to them.”

His said his greatest concern for seniors comprises the “isolation, loneliness and despair that can materialize if you are not having sufficient social contacts with others, and if you don’t see hope for the future.”

Meuser, who with others calls Legacy members just to check in, said he has noticed “spikes” in moods and anxieties. One isolated woman said she hadn’t showered or changed clothes in four days.

“Part of the conversation was self care, and I challenged her,” Meuser said. “… Somebody else from the outside can say ‘look, this is what’s happening,’ and I think for her it was a wake-up call.”

He pointed, though, to the inner strength of older adults, who’ve lived through world wars and civil tumult and seen things ultimately get better.

“If you’ve made it to the seventh or eighth or ninth decade of life, you have built up a tremendous resource of life experience and ingrained resilience,” Meuser said. “… That gives me a lot of comfort in the present crisis, and with respect to future uncertainty.”

Dartha Vance, a 70-year-old who’s lived on her own since her husband died 10 years ago, and whose children live in Spain and Texas, can attest to that resilience. She’s been looking forward to returning to work as a hair dresser and seeing her clients-turned-friends, who’ve been calling to check on her.

She participates in a dog-walking group around her Cumberland neighborhood: “We meet just about every day, and stay 6 feet apart,” Vance said.

The virus doesn’t scare her much; she’s more concerned about her son, a doctor who works in a Level 1 trauma unit.

Tombrinck, meanwhile, has used her time in isolation to pen her life history for her children.

“I’m finding that I look back at my life a lot,” Tombrinck said. “It’s a really good time for me, and I would imagine for many others in my age group, to reflect.”

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