Older Adults Remain Isolated Despite Reopening. These Programs Help.

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Sally Love Saunders, 80, was stuck in a retirement home in San Francisco, desperate for someone to teach her to use Zoom so she could connect with people outside the building.

Nearby, Sarah Hinkfuss, 32, had grown weary of video calls with friends and family. She craved the spontaneity of new relationships and unplanned conversations — hard to come by in a world that is only now beginning to reopen after being shuttered by a pandemic.

Both women, strangers at the time, joined the volunteer phone bank of Mon Ami, which has connected thousands of older adults with younger volunteers across the country in recent months. Ms. Saunders and Ms. Hinkfuss had their first phone conversation on April 12.

“I wasn’t sure how lucid she would be or how much she would understand about what was going on in the world,” said Ms. Hinkfuss, a vice president at Bain Capital, an investment firm. “I was sensitive and cautious, but she blasted right through it. She had so much energy, and there was definitely a part of her life that was so much more interesting than me.”

Ms. Saunders, a poet whose retirement home is less than a block from Ms. Hinkfuss’s apartment, said the younger woman tells her about the outside world — a world she misses and cannot access.

The two women, both self-proclaimed extroverts, quickly bonded over the mental and emotional challenges of social distancing. Without her friends, nature walks and poetry readings, Ms. Saunders said she felt disconnected, bored and anxious.

“That’s why Sarah is good,” said Ms. Saunders, a former poetry instructor and certified poetry therapist. “Because she’s teaching me how to communicate with people in this dark age.”

Madeline Dangerfield-Cha, a co-founder of Mon Ami, an app that pairs college students and other young volunteers with older adults, said the phone bank relied on gig workers before the coronavirus outbreak. It shifted to a volunteer model in mid-March, just as the outbreak prompted a surge in demand, she said.

In recent months, similar programs have sprouted up across the country. Henrico County in Virginia created an outreach call center to find adults 65 and older, a group that makes up about 30 percent of its population, according to Sara Morris, the county’s advocate for the aging.

And in Los Angeles, Margaret Irwin, the elder director of a neighborhood council, said she compiled a list of older residents. She and 25 volunteers called 3,000 phone numbers.

“I think speaking to a stranger is the only antidote to the anxiety and fear that’s coming at this time,” Ms. Dangerfield-Cha said. “It breaks down the feeling of being in a bubble and reminds us what else is going on in the world.”

About a quarter of people over 65 who live independently are considered socially isolated, according to a 2018 study published in The Journals of Gerontology. And 43 percent of people over 60 report feeling lonely, according to another study in JAMA Internal Medicine — and that was before public health officials instructed older people, and virtually everyone else, to stay home.

All 50 states have since started to reopen in some way, but the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services urged the nation’s governors last month to exercise “extreme caution” before allowing visitors to return to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, which have been hit hard by the pandemic.

With no immediate end to her isolation in view, Ms. Saunders speaks with Ms. Hinkfuss for about 45 minutes each Sunday. They have moved from phone calls to Zoom, but their conversations still revolve around their families, careers and past adventures.

During one video call, Ms. Hinkfuss said she showed Ms. Saunders how to use YouTube. The two sat in silence and watched a Tibetan singing bowl, a type of bell that vibrates and produces a soothing tone, for the last seven minutes of the call.

Ms. Saunders has filled three notebooks with poems about the pandemic since a stay-at-home order was issued for the Bay Area in mid-March.

“My notebooks should be in the shape of an ear — they listen,” Ms. Saunders said. “My pages listen to me, and then I can read it back, and it’s like somebody talking to me.”

Ms. Saunders shares some of her poetry during each call. And when Ms. Hinkfuss introduced her to her fiancé, Ms. Saunders pulled out a book of her love poems and read from it.

The two don’t often talk about the pandemic, but Ms. Saunders’s emotions are present in her poetry, Ms. Hinkfuss said. After she reads them aloud, she will often ask: “Was that too dark? Was that too depressing? Should I stop?”

“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever been through,” Ms. Saunders said. “And I’ve been through the Second World War, 9/11, cancer and divorce. The isolation goes on for so long, and the sadness of all these people dying. Even one person dying would be too much.”

The city of Plano, Texas, started a service in April called Biweekly Senior Care Calls to check on older residents. Currently, 17 city workers, primarily members of the public library staff, regularly call more than 100 older adults.

Holly Ryckman, 50, a librarian, said the first time she called Dell Kaplan, 81, she learned that Ms. Kaplan used to work for the city. They immediately hit it off.

“The phone calls are a bright spot in my day,” Ms. Ryckman said. “Each call gives me a sense of purpose. It’s really tangible.”

Ms. Kaplan, who lives alone, said the isolation has been sad and unsettling. She often talks to relatives and friends on the phone and on Zoom, but said she jumped at the opportunity for more human contact.

“For a while, I felt I was all by myself, and I was trying to absorb it all — all the people dying,” Ms. Kaplan said. “The days are very long, and I try to keep busy every minute. The phone calls break up the day and made me a new friend.”

Bethany Ross, 50, another Plano librarian, said she had been speaking with Jennifer Wu, 65, on the phone every other week since the beginning of April.

Ms. Wu said she was worried when she heard about the virus because she lived alone. When she learned about the program in an email from the city, she immediately signed up.

“The conversations at this point are not about Covid-19,” Ms. Ross said. “It’s about ‘how is your life?’ and ‘what have you been up to?’ Surprisingly, people have been getting up to stuff and learning new things. I’m amazed at the resiliency.”

Ms. Wu said she had joined an online photography club, continued to take daily walks in a nearby park and used a meditation app to relax.

“You need to have people that you can talk to,” Ms. Wu said.

Nicholas Nicholson Jr., an associate professor of nursing at Quinnipiac University who has studied the social isolation of older people, said loneliness is a complex problem that develops over a long period, so the solution also takes time, dedication and effort.

“A single phone call is this beginning of a relationship that can really improve an older adult’s mental health,” Dr. Nicholson said.

ImageDell Kaplan at her home in Plano. She is among about 100 older residents who receive phone calls every other week from one of 17 city workers.
Dell Kaplan at her home in Plano. She is among about 100 older residents who receive phone calls every other week from one of 17 city workers.Credit…LM Otero/Associated Press

Isolation is associated with significantly higher rates of heart disease and stroke and a 50 percent increased risk of dementia, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. According to a study in PLOS Medicine, isolated or lonely older people suffer a mortality rate comparable to those linked to smoking, obesity, excessive alcohol consumption and physical inactivity.

“Older adults have been impacted tenfold by the virus, and it’s not going away,” said Dana Bradley, the dean of the Erickson School of Aging Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “This group is diverse, but tends to be the most isolated and forgotten across geography, income and social class issues, especially if they don’t have family.”

And in a moment when everyone is struggling with feeling isolated, a phone call can help both callers find a much-needed connection, Dr. Bradley said.

“Humans like to be acknowledged for their own humanity,” she said, “regardless of their age.”