Amid shutdown, seniors battle loneliness

Coronavirus crisis robbing elderly of socialization

David Gilbert
Posted 3/22/20

Rich Foerster doesn't know when he'll see his friends again. Foerster, 72, is on the board at the Parker Senior Center, which most days is filled with folks …

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Amid shutdown, seniors battle loneliness

Coronavirus crisis robbing elderly of socialization


Rich Foerster doesn't know when he'll see his friends again.

Foerster, 72, is on the board at the Parker Senior Center, which most days is filled with folks chatting over card games and coffee. But amid the COVID-19 crisis, the center is shuttered, and Foerster worries about what that means for lonely seniors.

“I feel helpless,” Foerster said. “I'm worried they'll get lonely, then depressed, then stop eating, then get sick. Loneliness can be deadly, and that's what we try to address.”

The Parker Senior Center is doing what it can, Foerster said. Volunteers are calling as many members as possible, and the center is still selling to-go meals.

But the center's food bank is closed, and nobody knows when old friends will be able to gather together again.

Beyond the center, Foerster said, churches, rec centers and libraries are closed, leaving few options for the elderly to maintain their routines.

“I hope people pull together,” Foerster said. “I hope people are looking out for the seniors in their lives. They're going to need it.”

Across the metro area, seniors are facing the prospect of prolonged shutdowns and quarantines that could cost them socialization that's vital to keep health and morale up. Older adults and people of any age with serious underlying medical conditions are at higher risk for the most severe complications of COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I can see the fear of isolation cropping up already,” said Jen Engquist, the director of Break Bread, a free weekly community meal program in Littleton that largely serves local seniors.

“Our mission isn't food,” Engquist said. “It's building meaningful relationships through food. This is a game changer.”

Break Bread will still be handing out to-go meals every Saturday, but Engquist said she's afraid physical solitude will turn into despair.

“People need to know they mean something to others, that somebody still cares,” Engquist said. “We're getting through this together, apart.”

Even those elderly people who live in senior homes are adjusting to a more limited lifestyle as state health orders force strict quarantines.

Bill Hemingway, who lives at the MorningStar senior living home in Arvada with his wife Kim, said the crisis has taken the social life that prompted them to move to the center in the first place.

“Everything's shut down,” said Hemingway, 85. “We just stay in our rooms. We're taking it day by day. People our age are the ones this virus kills, so there's a lot of worry.”

Hemingway praised the center's staff, saying they are trying to keep morale up, and are diligent about watching for fevers among residents.

“We're well taken care of,” Hemingway said. “We're just wondering how long this will last.”

'A very scary time'

The uncertainty of the coronavirus crisis is weighing on some seniors.

“I don't know when I'll see my grandkids again,” said Sue Frommelt, a board member with the Highlands Ranch Senior Club. “It's surreal.”

Frommelt, 70, said she moved to Highlands Ranch to be closer to her grandkids, just like many members of the Senior Club.

“We had a cruise planned, and that got canceled, and we figured we'd just spend Spring Break with the grandkids,” Frommelt said. “Then my kids told me they want me to just stay home, and they won't come over. It hurts. I understand it, but I don't like it.”

Many older folks in Highlands Ranch are transplants, Frommelt said, and without senior clubs and other community groups, life can drag.

“I saw a post on Facebook that said 'In case you need to know, today is Thursday,' ” Frommelt said. “I have a husband, but for those living alone, this could be a very scary time.”

Some seniors are doing their best to make use of new technology.

Andrea Suhaka of Centennial prides herself on being well-connected in the community. The author of a popular local newsletter, Suhaka is doing her best to stay in touch.

She belongs to a computer club, where seniors stay current on modern software. The club is working on learning Zoom, a web-based video conferencing tool.

“It's a challenge, but it's just so nice to see everyone's faces,” Suhaka said.

Obstacles ahead

As the crisis drags on, so will other challenges for seniors.

For Love Inc, a Littleton-based nonprofit, many of their volunteers and the people they serve are elderly.

One of Love Inc's programs is driving elderly people to errands or doctor's appointments. The pool of drivers has plummeted, said Kathryn Roy, the group's director.

“Our volunteers are mostly vulnerable retirees,” Roy said. “We're understanding if they don't want to serve as they have been.”

Thankfully for now, the number of needed rides has also dropped, but Roy said she anticipates it will rise again in coming weeks.

“People are putting off doctor's appointments, but they can't do that forever,” Roy said. “People will need to get to food banks and drugstores.”

The best thing the community can do, Roy said, is stay as connected as possible and look for ways to help vulnerable seniors.

“Look out for your neighbors,” Roy said. “Call people. We have to renew our commitment to community, even as we're feeling isolated.”

COVID-19, Colorado


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