The stories that volunteer John Lee of San Francisco hears each week as he makes calls to seniors across the state are often heartbreaking.
There was the 80-year-old Chinese woman in San Jose who’d been stuck at home for six months with no one visiting her; the elderly man who’d weathered two hospitalizations for COVID-19, alone; the senior who desperately wanted to see her grandkids but couldn’t because she was worried about catching the virus.
“Some are just by themselves,” said Lee, who volunteers for a state-sponsored program called the Listos California Social Bridging Project, which reaches out to seniors at risk for isolation. “Some of them feel pretty bad because they … want to socialize, but they can’t.”
Social isolation and loneliness have long been a challenge among seniors. About one in six Californians over the age of 50 live alone, placing them at high risk for social isolation even before the pandemic. Now, physical distancing measures and fear of getting COVID-19 have exacerbated the problem. In survey results released in October by the AARP Foundation, over 60 percent of older adults reported experiencing social isolation since the pandemic began, and more than half said their anxiety levels had increased.
The holiday season is further adding to social isolation and feelings of loneliness for seniors, who are among those most at risk for serious illness and death from COVID-19. Many won’t be able to celebrate the holidays with loved ones because of virus concerns. Some have lost spouses or other family members to the virus, making the holidays particularly difficult.
“The amount of time that folks have been isolated is becoming quite unbearable,” said Karen Baker, who oversees the Social Bridging Project. “People are being given very clear directions —especially during this uptick — not to gather, and that is what we advise. It’s just that they need to be given other resources so that they can cope.”
Social isolation is harmful to physical and mental health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), social isolation is associated with a heightened risk for premature death, dementia, heart disease, stroke, depression, anxiety and suicide. In fact, the negative health impacts are similar to those tied to obesity, smoking and lack of exercise. Seniors are more likely to be socially isolated if they are low-income, LGBTQ, immigrants, caring for other family members, or if they have historically faced discrimination or barriers to services, said Nancy McPherson, state director for the AARP.
Recognizing these risks, the California Department of Aging and several organizations that work with the elderly have ramped up efforts to reach vulnerable seniors during the pandemic. These include the Social Bridging Project, which assigns volunteers and community health workers to call low-income seniors living alone. There’s also a San Francisco-based crisis-line and warm-line for seniors that is now handling about four times the number of calls it did before the pandemic. And many meal delivery programs now double as wellness check-ins.
Listos California launched in 2019 as a campaign to educate vulnerable Californians about emergency preparedness. But faced with the COVID-19 emergency and risk of heightened isolation among seniors, organizers formed the Social Bridging Project. Project leaders used voter records to identify people over 60 who are low-income and likely living alone. The callers, known as “bridgers,” reach out to the seniors and check on their physical and mental wellbeing. They engage the seniors in conversation and provide referrals for food delivery, housing, mental health care and other services in their community as needed.
The Social Bridging Project launched in San Francisco in the spring and now serves 20 California counties in both English and Spanish. So far, bridgers have successfully engaged about 26,000 seniors, Baker said.
Many of the seniors are eager to talk. Some have been alone for a long time. Baker described a man in the Bay Area who hadn’t talked to anyone for three months until a bridger called him, a senior in Santa Barbara who had recently lost his wife and was distressed because he couldn’t go to church to grieve, and another elder who hadn’t eaten anything but oatmeal for more than two weeks.
“Typically they’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m fine,’ at first,” said Baker. “But after talking for five or 10 minutes you have people breaking down saying they just lost their partner of 40 years to COVID, or people who haven’t seen their kids in months that are really isolated. You have all kinds of issues that start coming out.”
Bridgers often refer seniors who need longer-term emotional support to the Friendship Line, another program for the elderly that has ramped up during the pandemic. Based in San Francisco, the Friendship Line is a hotline for older adults who are lonely, depressed, isolated, frail or suicidal. Approximately 130 volunteers and staff offer a listening ear to seniors across California and the country who may have no one else to talk to. They also make regularly scheduled calls to seniors who request it.
About 90 percent of the seniors that call the line live alone, said Mia Grigg, who oversees the Friendship Line at the Institute on Aging. During the pandemic, the line has quadrupled its capacity, in part thanks to a new contract with the California Department of Aging.
The line provides “that human connection that a lot of us take for granted,” she said. “There’s nothing you can do to fix somebody’s story when they have a chronic illness, when they’re completely alone … but what we can do is be there with them, and when we’re on the call we’re hearing what they’re saying, we’re feeling what they’re feeling.”
Meal delivery programs are another way to reach isolated seniors that have taken on new importance during the pandemic. In April, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the launch of a restaurant home-delivery program called Great Plates that enlists community restaurants to prepare meals for delivery to older Californians who live alone or with another senior. The program is scheduled to run through January, although there have been some concerns that the meals aren’t reaching the lowest-income seniors.
The Institute of Aging has its own meal delivery program in San Francisco, which it has expanded during the pandemic. Recipients used to attend the institute’s Geary Street day center for meals and socialization. Now, food delivery workers visit the approximately 250 low-income seniors at their homes to deliver meals and check on them. If they notice a senior isn’t able to come to the door or seems disheveled or depressed, they notify the Institute on Aging, which follows up to ensure the person gets medical or mental health care if needed, said Aaron McPherson, vice president of Integrated Client Services for the organization.
Meanwhile, Lee and around 1,000 other volunteers with the Social Bridging Project have continued to make calls to seniors across the state, although they will pause for a break this month. The project was originally supposed to end Dec. 30, but there is so much need that Baker hopes the governor and legislature will approve funding to make it a permanent program.
“A lonely, unconnected senior who needs to be reached — that’s always going to be a part of our community footprint,” she said. “There are always going to be those seniors who don’t have the knowledge or connections or resources.”
Tips for seniors and their family members:
We may have all scaled back our personal interactions to stay safe, but that doesn’t mean we can’t connect in other ways. Technology offers ways to keep in touch with family, friends, neighbors and loved ones. Below are some tips for seniors and their family members from the AARP and senior advocates.
Measure your risk
- Measure your risk for isolation — or that of your loved one — at the AARP Foundation’s Connect2Affect.org. This platform also provides lists of community assistance programs for medical care, food and job training.
Find help locally
- Plug into the growing number of mutual aid groups that organize volunteers to assist older neighbors by, for example, picking up prescriptions or going grocery shopping for them. AARP recently launched the “Community Connections” tool, also in Spanish at www.aarp.org/MiComunidad, to help you find a group in your area. You can also request a call from an AARP volunteer through the website or by calling 1-888-281-0145.
Look for virtual services and activities
- Many in-person activities are now being offered online. Your local fitness center, for example, might be offering virtual exercise classes. Or perhaps your book club now meets online. AARP’s website offers daily fitness videos, links to movies that stream online, and other ideas to stay active and engaged during this difficult time.
- Identify vulnerable older adults in your family or neighborhood and make a plan to have someone reach out to them on a regular basis by phone, text, email or virtual chat. This is an excellent opportunity to introduce someone unacquainted with Zoom, Skype or Facetime to this new method of communication. Grigg at the Friendship Line advises asking questions that invite a meaningful response, such as, “How are you doing today?” rather than simply, “How are you doing?” which usually prompts a rote “fine.” She also advises practicing active listening, and not being afraid to ask about someone’s mood and mental health.
- Seniors and others can also volunteer to provide critical services. It’s a way to assist others while also helping you find purpose and avoid isolation. Mentors and tutors, for example, are always in high demand and both roles can easily be filled remotely. You might also want to volunteer to answer helpline calls related to the pandemic.
Warm-line and crisis-line numbers:
- Friendship Line California: 888-670-1360
- CalHOPE Warm Line: (833) 317-HOPE (4673)
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255