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Chris Smith: Wave, write or call local seniors isolated by the pandemic

The dog and I were exploring a quiet, short residential block in central Santa Rosa one morning and paused to admire a sweet, little, old house.

A window slid open and a woman 10 or 15 years my senior appeared. “A human being!” she bellowed merrily.

Amid the isolation required by the pandemic, she savored the chance to chat with a fellow homo sapien about my pup, the weather, the state of the world and this and that. I enjoyed the conversation from the fence line with a dear, grandmotherly lady who’s pretty much stuck inside and alone.

The encounter got me to thinking about the untold elders who are largely or entirely confined to their homes or to their apartments or to their rooms at nursing, assisted living or retirement residences. I made some calls to see how they are faring.

Not well, not well at all. Some seniors who were living quite well before being quarantined and cut off from the world for their own good are now wasting away in anguish. But there are some things that can be done.

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TO BE LONELY and locked indoors, several professionals who work with seniors told me, is accelerating the decline of many elders.

“It’s become a huge concern for all of us,” said Marianne McBride, who runs the Council on Aging. “Isolation is incredibly detrimental to our ability to age healthily. The longer this goes on, the further peoples’ health is going to deteriorate.”

Though freedom of movement varies according to the situation, many elders are for months now unable to see their families or to even leave their rooms.

“Sadly, it’s very similar to jail,” said Crista Chelemedos, who heads Sonoma County’s Senior Advocacy Services. “There’s a lot of despair.”

She and members of her staff are often asked by elders who suffer in solitary confinement, “Is this my future? When will this be over?”

Isolated and depressed and increasingly hopeless as the spread of the COVID-19 virus continues to spike, older folks see their mental and emotional distress eat away at their physical health.

“It’s very frightening,” said Elece Hempel, director of the Petaluma People Services Center.

When shut off from human contact and the stimulation of normal life, “you start to atrophy,” Hempel said. It breaks her heart to anticipate that when at last the health crisis calms, it will be clear that many surviving old people will have become far older.

“Their needs are getting heightened to a level we have never seen before,” Hempel said.

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WHAT CAN BE DONE to help engage and improve the outlook, vigor and connectedness of elders isolated by the pandemic is a concern to many, certainly to the members of a recently created county task force.

Already, some seniors benefit from being able to go outside, or to Skype or Zoom or FaceTime with relatives and friends, or to correspond with pen pals or to receive daily phone calls from volunteers with programs such as You Are Not Alone, hosted by the Petaluma People Services Center.

Anyone interested in linking up with an elder who could use a friend can contact the Petaluma agency and sign up with the call-a-day program. We also can make a point to check on and reach out to elderly neighbors and relatives by phone or by a properly masked and distanced visit at their front door.

“You can bake a neighbor a pie,” suggested Chelemedos, of Senior Advocacy Services.

I will be happy to share other ideas and opportunities for doing whatever can be done safely for elders who must be protected from the coronavirus, but can’t be allowed to die instead of loneliness.

“It’s a community responsibility. It’s a family responsibility,” said McBride, the president and CEO of the Council on Aging. “It’s on all of us to make this the best possible place in which to age.”

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WHAT WE ALL must do, without exception, couldn’t be more obvious.

We must treat this pandemic as the extreme, historic, life-or-death crisis that it is. I’d hope that anyone who considers not bothering with a mask or doing anything that violates health protocols and common sense would imagine the locked-away older person whose suffering deepens and whose risk of dying as if in a prison cell increases with each new day this pandemic endures.

On tomorrow’s dog walk, I’ll pause at the fence of the woman who was happy to talk with another human, and see if we might catch up.

Contact Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 or chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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