Prayer calls and pet therapy: How seniors stay connected in a pandemic

Why We Wrote This

The elderly are vulnerable to the coronavirus, but also to the isolation that social distancing brings. This story looks at how families and communities are coping with this challenge. 

Gregory Bull/AP
Employees of Vi at La Jolla retirement complex hold signs and wave flags for the residents during an afternoon pep rally, Wednesday, April 8, 2020, in San Diego. As elderly residents who have been quarantined for weeks make their way out onto their balconies, employees below dance, wave flags and shout words of encouragement in a now almost daily afternoon pep rally.

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Residents in nursing homes are among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s not just the immediate threat of a disease that disproportionately afflicts the elderly and vulnerable. In order to slow infection rates, nursing facilities have had to bar visitors and end communal activities, and that exacts its own toll on older people who are struggling with isolation and loneliness.

Out in the community, many seniors have also become cut off from personal contact with family or friends, adding to the risk of isolation. But there are many creative ways to stay in touch, and community organizations and volunteers are going all out to ease the isolation of a lockdown.  

Richard Dobbey, a church usher in Chicago, checks on the seniors in his parish, and makes sure food for funerals still arrives. He is starting to look beyond the present crisis. “Some of these things you’re doing now, these are things we should do all the time.”

Julia Adams looked forward to two family outings a week: Thursday dinner and Sunday lunch. That changed last month when the 80-year-old’s assisted living home in New Middletown, Ohio, closed to visitors as a COVID-19 precaution.

“Mom had kept asking about going out to dinner,” says her son Charley Adams. “I just had to keep telling her: ‘Mom, you can’t leave, and I can’t come in.’ ”

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He could hear her disappointment on the phone. The facility has arranged Skype sessions to help families connect, he says, but he doesn't know how to use it. So one Sunday he took matters into his own hands.

Mr. Adams, who owns a tree service business, went home to get his bucket truck. It extends 55 feet into the air, more than enough to reach his mom’s 3rd floor window.

“I called her on her phone – she had her blinds closed – and I said, Look out your window, Mom.”

“Oh, it was wonderful,” says Ms. Adams on a call from her room. She says her son’s surprise appearance was a big hit with the other residents, too. 

Courtesy of Corrie Adams
Charley Adams visits his 80-year-old mom, Julia Adams, at her assisted living home in New Middletown, Ohio, on March 22, 2020. Mr. Adams has used his bucket truck to keep connected with his mom during the pandemic.

Senior care organizations are scrambling to stave off the novel coronavirus as related deaths at these facilities mount – more than 3,600 according to the latest count from the Associated Press. Residents in nursing and retirement homes are considered particularly vulnerable because of their age, and many have underlying health conditions. 

Staff, too, are affected. Last week, a nursing home in Riverside, California, had to be evacuated because staff were too frightened to work. Dozens of residents, including employees, had tested positive for COVID-19.

Yet as these facilities bar visitors, group activities, and communal dining, staff and families are finding creative ways to ease the isolation of elderly residents, from virtual pet therapy to window weddings. Ideally, that stream of love and dedication should continue even after the pandemic, say experts, who point out that seniors in an aging nation already struggle with isolation and loneliness.

“Many, many people across the nation are [leaning] into our shared humanity and working hard to be creative about how they remain connected,” says Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of the AARP Foundation, the charitable arm of the AARP, which has nearly 40 million members. “As long as those circles of connection are inclusive of older adults, we’ll all benefit.”

Even before the pandemic, 1 in 4 older adults surveyed said they struggled with social isolation and 1 in 3 with loneliness, says Ms. Ryerson. Now that many seniors have become cut off from personal contact or lost work, isolation is a growing risk. It can bring on loneliness, and prolonged isolation has negative health effects – the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to research.

“Vulnerable older people tend to be invisible in communities, or can be. At a time of social distancing, we need to be very wary they don’t become more invisible.”

Morale booster

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom, the first governor to direct people over 65 to stay home, is asking individuals to call or text five seniors or knock on a door – even while keeping a safe distance. He’s urging folks who want to help to call a hotline, 833-544-2374, to ask about ways to reach out to seniors. The state is also partnering with AARP and a nonprofit phone line that connects people with social services, including meals.

AARP recommends ways to boost your loved one’s morale, including letter writing and video calling, care packages with puzzles picturing the family, and virtual meals together. 

Roy Bateman, a retiree who lives alone in San Francisco, says he is not the type to ask for help. He was never very social before the virus, though he valued the couple of outings a week to meet friends for lunch or go to a Japanese conversation class. He used to walk a lot – up to 10 hours a week.

Now he’s mostly on his computer, watching news and short videos because he can’t concentrate, or writing emails, while doing a little remote volunteer work. The former federal grants administrator is anxious about infection, and ventures out only very late at night. He lets his newspaper sit for a day, and without punctuating events in the week, Mr. Bateman is losing track of time – loosely measuring it by how many cans of vegetables are left in his kitchen.

His last grocery shopping trip was to Costco on March 13 and he needs to go soon. But if some unknown good Samaritan called him – as the governor suggests – he probably would say he doesn’t need anything, because that's "pretty much the case." And he’d rather pick out his own food. “I’m not interested in getting homemade muffins,” he says. 

Still, he appreciates the weekly call he gets from Openhouse, which serves LGBTQ seniors. “It’s really nice.”

Prayer lines and funeral services 

Pastor D. Darrell Griffin, of Oakdale Covenant Church, an African American church on Chicago’s South Side, spends a lot of time calling seniors – phoning about 35 on a recent day. “They were just so elated to hear my voice, elated that the church was thinking of them,” he says.

The church also hosts a 6 a.m. telephone prayer line, which has been extended from five to six days a week because of the COVID-19 crisis. It’s designed to accommodate the lowest-tech parishioner. The connections are not good and the leader has to remind people to mute their phones. But it works, and more people are joining in.

Glenna Ousley is one of the regulars. She said the pandemic has made her feel cut off, but not isolated. The prayer line has helped. “It’s comforting,” she said. “It’s uplifting. It’s God affirming. It’s life affirming.” She adds: “We kind of feed off each other. We take comfort in knowing we’re not alone.”

At the Oakdale church, seniors help each other. Richard Dobbey is 71 and head of the ushers, most of them elderly. He’s also involved in the church’s men’s group, and they’re checking in on the older seniors.

He is starting to look beyond the present crisis. “Some of these things you’re doing now, these are things we should do all the time.”

Mr. Dobbey recently helped organize a funeral dinner for a family. Parishioners cooked or picked up spaghetti, potato salad, green beans, three kinds of chicken, and “four or five” cakes, he said. They couldn’t go to the funeral, so they dropped the food off at the family’s house.

The head usher says he isn’t in good health and doesn’t go out much. But a few days ago, when the weather in Chicago turned warm, he walked to his driveway, sat in his car and rolled down the windows.

“I just wanted some air. I did that, and listened to music. My wife said, ‘What are you doing?’ It was good for me. I’m doing something for myself,” he says.

Dancing and movie nights

Helping themselves, and helping each other – that’s true for many seniors during this isolation.

In Los Angeles, Hugo and Elba Corzo used to love going out to see dancers from their native Guatemala, and to dance themselves. Now the couple, in their 60s, dip and sway at their three-bedroom, two-bath home in the now trendy Highland Park neighborhood.

Francine Kiefer/The Christian Science Monitor
Handyman Hugo Corzo, who lives in Los Angeles, at the home of a client on April 4, 2020. While he is still able to work as a handyman, his wife, Elba, who cleans houses, is sheltering in place. The couple loves to dance, which they are now doing at home because they can't go out to dances.

While Mr. Corzo continues to work as a handyman – his car is loaded with hand sanitizer, masks, and wipes – his wife, who cleans houses, is at home, tidying and sorting drawers, video-calling with her extended family, cooking, and working out to Jane Fonda.

She’s scared and lonely, but not depressed. He’s fine, he says, in an interview in a client’s back yard. In the evenings, they watch movies together. “She wants to be with me,” he smiles.

Like the Corzos, Bob and Janet Pendoley watch movies after dinner. Retired and in their 70s, they live in San Rafael, just north of San Francisco in Marin County – among the first counties in the nation to get the “shelter in place” order, which took effect March 17.

“I’m very comfortable, but I definitely feel isolated,” says the former city planner.

Like many baby boomers, the Pendoleys have become “Baby Zoomers,” learning to use Zoom, the popular video-conference service. Their first virtual reunion with their two sons and their families was “humiliating,” recalls Bob, because he could not get it to work. “I kept hearing, ‘OK boomer!’” from the kids.

Now the Pendoleys are experienced Zoomers, holding a story hour with their granddaughter a couple times a week.

Yes, says Janet, it’s “aggravating” not to be able to go where you want, or to visit in person. But, she concludes, this is temporary. They do have connections with people. Even as a 10-year-old, she had to find things to do so as not to get bored.

“Bottom line, this makes me much more cognizant and appreciative of the things we do have.”

Staff writers Francine Kiefer and Sarah Matusek reported from Pasadena and New York. Correspondent Richard Mertens reported from Chicago. 

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