‘People are scared’: Residents step up to help as seniors linger in isolation

“My doctor said go home and close your door and don’t let anyone in or out,” 102-year-old Mildred Wallerstein said.

For Wallerstein and many seniors, the coronavirus outbreak has forced her to stay inside her apartment in Signal Hill. The most she gets out these days is to sit on her patio or try to walk down the street a short distance, so she said phone calls are the best way for her to stay connected with friends and loved ones while she’s isolated.

“All day long, my phone won’t stop ringing,” Wallerstein said enthusiastically. “Everybody wants to know how I’m doing. Everybody wants to leave me food… It makes me feel very good that so many people care about me because I cannot go out and be with people.”

Wallerstein, who has generous neighbors dropping off casseroles and a son who calls her daily, considers herself lucky because she knows some of her peers don’t have loved ones to connect with.

Mildred Wallerstein, 102, looks out her apartment window at her home in Signal Hill Thursday, April 9, 2020. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Many seniors who may face increased risks of complications from contracting the virus are self isolating and feel totally alone, said Heart of Ida founder Dina Berg, who runs the Long Beach charity focused on preserving independence for older adults.

“People are scared,” Berg said. “A woman called me today crying. I think she’d been watching the news too much. She wanted someone to talk to.”

Which is why Heart of Ida has launched a new Friendly Caller Program with volunteers scheduling weekly telephone check-ins for people who need social connection and support.

Even without coronavirus, Berg explained, social isolation impacts nearly one in five older adults in the United States, with studies tying that loneliness to greater risk of heart disease, decreased mobility, high blood pressure, dementia and more.

She said the Friendly Caller Program, with its first scheduled call this week, is something she’d been thinking about doing anyway, and coronavirus pushed her to make it happen. She plans to maintain it permanently.

Heart of Ida is coordinating the program, using background checked and trained volunteers, in partnership with the Long Beach Senior Police Partners (SPP), a group of seniors who are trained to provide peer support.

SPP volunteer coordinator Tom Leary of the Long Beach Police Department said partnering with Heart of Ida is giving a new sense of purpose to the SPP volunteers who could no longer make physical house calls for their own safety.

“As soon as we called off (home visit) operations, the volunteers were climbing the walls asking when they could come back,” Leary said. “People are alone and they can feel like the last person on earth. Having a connection, just knowing that someone is thinking about them really does help them.”

With calls starting this week, Leary said the feedback already has been incredible, with volunteers sharing news updates and confirming with isolated seniors whether or not they need help to get their prescriptions or meals.

“We are really pleased to be a part of this, and I see this as an ongoing venture—now that this foundation has been created, why not call seniors all the time? It’s a great model,” Leary said.

Besides phone calls, other local nonprofits, too, and even individuals and neighbors are finding ways to connect with isolated seniors.

Long Beach’s Meals on Wheels delivers hot dinners, lunches and desserts to an average of 350-400 people (mostly seniors) per day, and Executive Director Bill Cruikshank expects that number to hit 500 this week as demand increases.

Although volunteers must maintain social distance, they still see clients and exchange friendly waves as they drop off items. Cruikshank said he’s encouraged by the outpouring of support he’s seeing from the community, especially from young people who have stepped up to volunteer and fill the need for Meals on Wheels.

“We’ve lost about 20% of our volunteers who were seniors who could no longer do deliveries, but more than twice that many have come our way because many people at home are wondering how they can help,” he said.

Neighbors in Naples and other communities within Long Beach also are coming together to help one another. Friendly faces from across the street bring baked goods to the stoop of 85-year-old Linda Bresnan of Naples, who pokes her nose out the door and smiles.

Like many self-isolating seniors, Bresnan is a widow who doesn’t get out much for fear of contracting coronavirus.

“I live alone, so I don’t cook much at all. Anything that someone actually makes is very much appreciated,” Bresnan said about the acts of kindness that have brightened her days during the COVID-19 crisis. “There’s a good network on the island (Naples), and we’ve all lived here for a hundred years so we all know one another.”

She said she’s making the best of having to stay at home: reconnecting with old friends via email and phone calls, cleaning the house, watching history shows on PBS and carefully making the occasional trip to the grocery store for supplies.

“We’re all stuck in this limbo,” she said. “I try to call different friends who I know are homebound or are not in as good of shape. It’s good just to hear a human voice… I have a little more time to do these things that I’ve been putting off, so now I have no excuses.”

Still, it hasn’t been easy. The retired airline stewardess celebrated a birthday alone last week and she’s recently lost a couple of friends who could not have public funeral services. She said she misses lunches with friends, meetings for the different groups she’s involved with and attending theatre productions.

But she doesn’t dwell on that. She said the most important thing she’s reminded herself to do every day since her husband Bob died more than a decade ago is to stay positive.

“God gave you these minutes, don’t waste them. You never know what is going to happen,” she said. “You have to shut out all the negativity. You have to be upbeat, even if you don’t feel like it, you have to force yourself.”

For more information on Heart of Ida’s program call 562-570-3548.

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