‘I Miss the Hugs’: Seniors Grapple with Social Isolation During Pandemic
Over the past seven weeks, Sindi Harvey of West Yarmouth has been trying to fill her days gardening, watching news, and walking her two dogs.
“I am alone here, except for my other little heartbeats, my animals,” she said.
The 60-year-old front desk manager at the Cape Cod Maritime Museum lost her husband and partner of 25 years in December. To ward off the quiet while stuck at home, she’s been turning the TVs in her kitchen, living room, and bedroom to the same channel, and raising the volume.
“I'm never in a silent house,” Harvey said. “Let's put it that way. I don’t like the silence that much.”
Before social distancing, Harvey would get a glass of wine twice a week with a group of friends. She said that was helping her work through the grief.
“The isolation has just compounded the depression,” she said.
Barnstable County has the highest population of elders in the state, with 28.5 percent of residents age 65 or older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey. That is nearly double the state average.
Many, like Harvey, now find themselves alone in the middle of a pandemic. Some have lost spouses and friends, while others have recently moved to new homes with unknown neighbors. For those seniors, the COVID crisis has intensified the loneliness they face.
“Loneliness acts as a fertilizer for other diseases,” said Karen Ellery Jones, assistant director of the Samaritans on Cape Cod and the Islands. She’s quoting Steve Cole, a researcher with the National Institute on Aging. Both professionals reference studies that show seniors without a support system have a decreased quality of life and are more likely to die sooner.
“We know that if someone is isolated, they have an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, heart attacks, depression and dementia, malnutrition as well,” she said. “So it is a huge, huge problem.”
Recognizing the need, Councils on Aging across the region have doubled down on programs to reach at-risk seniors. At the Barnstable Senior Center, for example, groups of five trade off calling one person each week.
The local Samaritans chapter also runs a free and confidential Senior Outreach Program.
Ellery Jones says she’s helped connect around 70 seniors with volunteers.
“Our Samaritan volunteers call them once a week to check in and say, ‘Hey, how's your week going?’ ‘How are you feeling?’” she said.
Beyond programs and hotlines, some seniors facing isolation are finding new ways to maintain important connections.
“[In] my life before this [I did] high tea three mornings a week,” said Denise Backus, 82, who’s lived in Falmouth for over 50 years. Until the virus upended it, her busy social life included a book group, meditation class, Tai Chi, and more.
In fact, after retiring as a social worker seven years ago, Backus said she hoped for one day a week to stay on her property, and not get in the car. That hadn’t happened until last month.
“It seems very busy. And in some ways I was ready for a break,” she said.
Of course, this wasn’t what she hoped for. So just a few weeks into her newfound quiet time, she started using technology to re-create an old routine: seeing friends most mornings at the local bakery.
“My introduction to Zoom was that the early morning people who went to Pie In The Sky started Zooming an early morning tea time,” she said.
Now each day at 7 a.m., she logs onto the video chatting platform and shares local news and laughs with more than a dozen familiar faces.
“So that's been great,” Backus said. “And everybody liked it so much that now we do it later in the afternoon at drinktime!”
But even with these improvised social connections, the physical isolation can be trying.
“I miss the hugs. That's one thing I really miss,” she said. “So those of us who can't will make these hugging gestures. ‘Hug hug!’ we'll say before we separate.”
While social distancing might be especially hard on seniors, they are hardly alone in looking forward to the day when “hug hug” isn’t what we say, but what we do.
Resources for loneliness, depression, and anxiety:
Samaritans Cape Cod and the Islands
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
Elder Services of Cape Cod and the Islands