Brunswick-based nonprofit People Plus has recently begun outdoor exercise programs for area seniors. Organizations throughout the area are working to connect with area seniors feeling isolated by the coronavirus pandemic. Courtesy / People Plus

CUMBERLAND COUNTY—Before the pandemic, Therese Jacobsen was used to getting out to run errands, such as grocery shopping or picking up medication. Since the coronavirus lockdown began in March, the 78-year-old Cumberland resident hasn’t even been able to do that, and if it weren’t for the assistance of local volunteers, she said, she wouldn’t have known where her next meal was coming from.

“It’s very difficult when you get up in age and have health issues, and have to depend on something,” she said.

Most Mainers have had to deal with fewer face-to-face encounters since the pandemic outbreak, but for local seniors, the isolation can be devastating and have potentially damaging psychological – even physical –impacts. That’s why many area organizations are working to keep people like Jacobsen connected to the outside world as much as possible.

A risky form of loneliness

Before the pandemic, Jacobsen said she and her husband, Donald, 86, “were getting out every so often,” but couldn’t travel far. After the lockdown, being even more housebound than before left Jacobsen wondering how she was going to get her errands done without help.

“I just was bewildered,” she said. “I didn’t know what the two of us were going to do.”

Liz Long, 79, who lives in senior housing in Biddeford, has found a lifeline in The Opportunity Alliance, a Portland-based organization that reaches out to her regularly. A retired teacher, a stroke has forced Long to be less active, and the pandemic has made life for her even harder.

“It’s not easy to be inside and isolated,” she said.

Liz Paige, right, meets with a client as part of The Opportunity Alliance’s Senior Companions program in this pre-pandemic photo. Due to the risk of contracting COVID-19, Paige has been connecting with her clients by phone. “It’s just that human contact,” she said. Courtesy / The Opportunity Alliance

According to the 2010 Census, there are 40,932 people age 65 or older living in Cumberland County, and 8,114 living in Sagadahoc County. For them, the potential dangers of isolation are more than just psychological. According to a 2016 study about the impacts of social isolation on heart health published in the British Medical Journal, people with “poor social relationships” have a 29% higher risk of developing heart disease and a 32% higher risk of stroke.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a national philanthropic organization focused on public health, noted in a recent online post that “there is also evidence that poorer social connection is associated with poorer general health and well-being, as well as with newly and previously diagnosed type 2 diabetes.”

Marilyn Gugliucci, professor and director of Geriatrics Research at the University of New England’s College of Osteopathic Medicine in Biddeford, said older Mainers who remain completely isolated will very likely develop physical as well as mental health problems. She said the most vulnerable are older people with limited financial resources and underlying medical conditions such as dementia.

“If (the isolation period) hasn’t started with a myriad of health conditions, it’s certainly going to end there,” she said.

What’s being done

Susan Lavigne, director of The Opportunity Alliance’s foster grandparent and senior companion programs, said the alliance has 22 volunteers working as companions who visit more than 100 people in York and Cumberland counties alone.

Lavigne said the organization had to adapt quickly once in-person visits were canceled in order to not lose contact with clients like Long.

“What became very apparent very quickly was the isolation of those seniors,” she said.

Sandra Smith is one of the companions, based in South Portland. She has been helping area seniors for nearly 11 years, and she said she was immediately aware of the impact the pandemic’s isolation had on her clients.

“It’s a different form of being trapped by the disease,” she said.

Smith described a senior companion as “a non-service person who’s a link to the outside world.” She works in part with her clients on a social level, making conversation. She said she tries to make a regular phone call last as long as the average pre-pandemic in-person visit.

“Some of the time we’re on the phone two hours, some of the time an hour or less,” she said.

Liz Paige, a senior companion based in Windham with five clients in the Lakes Region, has been working with area seniors for 13 years. She said in-person visits make a huge difference in her clients’ lives, and she is even more dedicated to their well-being now that face-to-face contact is not possible.

Stacy Frizzle-Edgerton, executive director of Brunswick-based People Plus, records a video with Teacher Ann Kimmage for an online yoga class for seniors. Courtesy / People Plus

One client, she said, is very social, and has not adjusted to the isolation well. Paige said she assembles a list of questions to ask before calling – anything to keep the conversation going.

“It’s become a challenge to keep that person on the phone for any length of time,” she said.

Blanche Alexander, a member of the Lakes Region Senior Center in Gorham, said the center serves 70-80 seniors, and used to hold regular social gatherings, including lunches, card games and other activities. All that had to stop on March 15.

“We do miss getting together,” she said.

The center is trying to keep engaged with members – from social media to building a raised backyard garden behind the center for seniors to visit and use – but the good old-fashioned telephone tree has been a huge help. Alexander said it starts daily when a member like her gets a call from another member to check in.

“Then I’ll call somebody else and check up on them,” she said.

Alexander said the phone tree lifts everyone’s spirits.

“They’re always glad that you called,” she said.

In Cumberland, Sarah Davis, the Aging in Place Coordinator for the town’s recreation department, has been working to keep in touch with seniors like Jacobsen in spite of the pandemic. Just helping seniors do basic things, like pick up medicine, can make a big difference.

“There are some (seniors) who’s health is compromised, and they’re nervous to go out,” she said.

Davis said she thinks the toughest part for isolated seniors is the uncertainty, the not knowing when the pandemic will be over.

“There’s no clear definitive end to that,” she said.

High-tech solutions

In Brunswick, the nonprofit organization People Plus has been working with about 600 homebound seniors since well before the pandemic, offering free transportation for essential needs such as grocery shopping and trips to the doctor.

The organization also offered a number of in-person services, such as exercise, lectures, group card games and social outings, but like many other organizations, closing the doors on March 16 forced the staff to get creative.

“We had to almost immediately rethink how are we going to help these people?” said Executive Director Stacy Frizzle-Edgerton.

Frizzle-Edgerton said People Plus makes “hundreds” of phone calls daily to check in on area seniors, but she said the organization is embracing modern technology wherever possible. Many of the exercise programs and lectures are still going on, except now they are presented as recorded videos, viewable online instead of in person.

Many seniors, Frizzle-Edgerton said, are willing to engage with others using teleconferencing software, once they have the hardware and learn how to use it.

“Once you get them going on Zoom, they’re all in,” she said.

Megan Walton, CEO of the Southern Maine Agency on Aging, based in Scarborough, said her senior clients also showed a strong interest in engaging in online offerings. When her organization had to close this spring, she worried about how well switching to online offerings would work, but she has been pleasantly surprised at how engaged many seniors have been.

“It just goes to show, I think, how resilient and adaptive our elder population is,” she said.

Walton said it’s not a perfect solution, however. Typically, clients over age 55 engage well, but some clients age 80 and older don’t have as much access to technology. Many of them, she said, don’t even have computers, so her organization uses the more direct approach of regular check-in calls to make sure her clients know someone cares.

Frizzle-Edgerton is also aware that not every one of her clients has computer access. She records update daily update videos, which are available on the organization’s Vimeo channel, but she makes sure they also get broadcast on local cable access, so those who don’t have a computer can still watch. She has been told that many of her clients tune in every day to see her updates.

“They’ve been hugely popular because they feel so alone and isolated,” she said.

For Jacobsen, the Aging in Place volunteers have kept her connected to the outside world, with their regular, dedicated service giving her more than just food and medicine. For her, their help has given her peace of mind.

“The volunteers are just outstanding,” she said. “I just personally don’t know what I would have done without them.”

Sean Murphy 780-9094

Email: [email protected]

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