People are getting creative to stay connected during this pandemic. We hear stories daily of drive-by birthday parties and visiting loved ones through windows. We recently shared the story about Chuck, a client who was recovering from surgery in a rehab center. His wife put on a wedding veil and held up a sign outside his window that read, “Yes, I would marry you again.”
At CICOA, we have volunteers calling about 200 seniors every week. They chat about the weather, about grandkids or memories of their youth. It may not seem like a lot, but simple gestures can be the difference between life and death.
Does that sound dramatic? Social isolation is a serious issue, and seniors are at the greatest risk. Isolation isn’t about being alone; it’s about feeling lonely and disconnected. People who feel lonely may have weakened immune systems that have trouble fighting off viruses, which makes them more susceptible to infectious diseases. In addition to weakened immune systems, studies show that social isolation can increase someone’s risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease and even death.
Humans – even those who are introverts – are social beings. We all need social interaction to thrive. It’s one of the reasons CICOA has a volunteer program. In normal times, we have volunteers who visit homebound seniors on a regular basis. In the “new normal,” we have volunteers who make regular calls to offer telephone reassurance. Because of the pandemic, this is the only volunteer opportunity we’re presently able to offer.
Seniors—who are at the greatest risk of COVID-19—need to stay home. Family, friends and neighbors who once stopped by can’t do that now. Seniors often don’t have the technology to participate in virtual calls. Many don’t drive, so they can’t participate in drive-by parades. Many are isolated, and many are anxious.
We know from research that when people engage in meaningful, productive activities with others, it boosts their mood, gives them a sense of purpose, and they tend to live longer. These activities seem to help maintain their well-being and may improve their cognitive function.
We want to do all we can to ward off depression and other risks associated with social isolation. While CICOA care managers regularly check on clients, they can’t call 11,000 clients weekly. Our Senior Buddies volunteers are helping to bridge the gap. While they make the friendly calls, they also are watching out for those who are feeling down or sounding anxious. Volunteers report concerns, so that care managers can take immediate action when needed.
“The misery and suffering caused by chronic loneliness are very real and warrant attention,” said Stephanie Cacioppo, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago and director of the university’s NIA-supported Brain Dynamics Laboratory. “As a social species, we are accountable to help our lonely children, parents, neighbors, and even strangers in the same way we would treat ourselves. Treating loneliness is our collective responsibility.”
We could not agree more. If you want to become a Senior Buddies volunteer, we’d love to have you. Even if volunteering isn’t right for you, I urge you to reach out to others, whether it’s a family member, co-worker, friend or neighbor. There’s never been a more important time to stay connected, even at a distance.
As President and CEO, Tauhric Brown uses his strategic vision and experience in the elderly and disability service industry to expand CICOA services and collaborative partnerships to better meet the needs of the vulnerable populations we serve. Before joining CICOA, Brown served as the chief operating officer for Senior Services, Inc. in Kalamazoo, Mich. His career started in the U.S. Army, and then he became a successful owner/operator for a multi-carrier wireless retail company. Inspired by his family and upbringing, he made the switch to the nonprofit world to fulfill his dream of improving the lives of others.