For Seniors, Isolation During Pandemic Has Benefits, Risks

Mar 18, 2020

Most people are limiting their contact with others to protect against the virus that causes COVID-19. This is considered especially important for senior citizens, whose immune systems may have more trouble fighting it. 

Older people and those who care for them are weighing the health benefits of social isolation with the cost.

Just a few days ago, some at the Northampton Senior Center squeezed in a friendly game of pool before the center closed, including a 96-year-old World War II vet named Edwin Nartowicz.

"N-A-R-T-O-W-I-C-Z," he spelled out his last name. "I’m not the mayor. He’s got a K. I got a T." 

Nartowicz is referring to Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, who — along with many other public officials across the state — closed municipal buildings, including most senior centers like this one, because of COVID-19.

Nartowicz had a backup plan.

"I'll spend more time at the YMCA," he said. "If you want to live to be 100 join the Y."

But now the Y is closed.

Also at the senior center last Friday was Bob Bernstein, an 88-year-old retired accountant, who was sitting with a few others who are part of a group that meets regularly, called "The Challenges of Aging with Grace." 

Bernstein said the virus is upending routines — like coming here. 

"It is a tremendous disruption in everybody's life," Bernstein said. "And it's the unknown or the unknowing that I’m most concerned about. Not just for me, but for everybody. So you don't know what's going to happen. So I say it's frightening to a degree."

State officials have issued orders to restrict visitors to nursing homes and assisted living facilities to prevent the spread of the virus.

In Massachusetts, more than 1.5 million people are over 60, one of the groups that is most vulnerable to the virus.

Except for take-out, most restaurants are closed in New England. Some community meal sites have also shut their doors. 

Now, Highland Valley Elder Services, which serves Hampshire and part of Hampden counties, is providing the community meals in home-delivered trays.

Executive Director Allan Ouimet said seniors can preorder food that they pick up at community meal sites. He said Highland Valley is still delivering Meals on Wheels to about 400 people. But how the food is dropped off is changing.

"Previously, people would come to the house, deliver a meal, talk to the consumer, spend a few minutes with them," Ouimet explained. "And the difference now is people are having to stay their distance from that consumer, out of an abundance of caution."

Highland Valley also provides help to the elderly with chores, or getting bathed or dressed. Some of those senior citizens now say: don’t come.

"If they're fearful that that person is going to come in and provide some sort of access to illness, then they're reluctant to let them into their home," he said.

Ouimet is concerned about seniors who become isolated.

"I think overall we need each other. I mean, people need to be around other people and that's a healthy, normal thing," he said. "And anytime we can't do that, whether it's the thing that we're supposed to do in terms of self-isolation, it isn't always good for us."

Priscilla Ross, executive director of Cooley Dickinson VNA and Hospice, which sends visiting nurses to people’s homes, said some of their medical patients are asking her staff to wear masks or gowns, or canceling. 

"When our patients decline services, we worry about social isolation and we also worry about their medical condition deteriorating without anybody to pick up on it before it becomes a medical crisis and they end up back in the hospital, which right now we would like to avoid," Ross said.

Director Marie Westburg of Northampton Senior Services and her team are identifying and calling elderly people who they feel are more fragile.

"People who are isolated or impoverished or dealing even with mental health issues may really be struggling just to get through the day and to take care of themselves," Westburg said. "And so we want to make sure that we're aware of what their level of distress is. And, you know, provide some support."

She said even a friendly voice on the line can make a big difference.

Seniors themselves sometimes have the most wisdom about staying healthy.

At Hungry Hill Senior Center last week in Springfield, Agnes Gallerani described an inventive approach.

"Sometimes when there’s a button for the elevator, I pull my sleeve down and push the button with my sleeve instead of my hand," she said.

And in Northampton, 60-something Jan Ragusa suggested taking walks, a break from the news, and:

"Watch your favorite movie. I still have VHS tapes," she said with a laugh.

A sense of humor, if you can find it, may also help people get through this pandemic. But it’s hard with so much unknown.

Adelaide Patterson contributed to this report.