Pandemic could increase social isolation issues for many senior citizens; locals try to help

Senior Centers and social isolation through COVID-19
Unidentified senior citizen sits in a wheelchair.
Unidentified senior citizen sits in a wheelchair. (Source: WVUE)

NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) -As more restaurants and businesses are open this Memorial Day weekend the message for senior citizens in Louisiana remains that they are safer at home because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Still there are local efforts to make sure the social isolation being endured by many of the elderly does not lead to emotional issues.

Leaders of local Councils on Aging say many seniors rely on the interactions they have at senior citizen centers but in Louisiana they remain closed for now because of the risk factors associated with the elderly and COVID-19.

Al Robichaux is Executive Director of the Jefferson Council on Aging.

"Seniors constantly tell us that their purpose in getting up in the morning is to go to the senior center and socialize with their friends they've made and they're not able to do this,” said Robichaux.

It is an issue Howard Rodgers, Executive Director of the New Orleans Council on Aging, is well aware of, given his many years of working with seniors.

"At the various centers, we are asking the senior center personnel to call their participants on a daily basis, or a weekly basis, kind of to get a checkup on them because unfortunately because of this social isolation and before the pandemic social isolation was one of the problems that affected the elderly,” said Rodgers.

Research recently published by the National Institutes of Health focuses on social isolation, older adults, and the pandemic.

In part it says, “Data on impact of loneliness and social isolation indicates significant and long-term negative outcomes for older adults identified as lonely and/or socially isolated."

Rodgers says major life-altering events can be especially challenging for seniors.

"We understand just like after Katrina there are going to be a number of mental health issues that are going to be present, so we're trying to be proactive,” Rodgers stated.

Robichaux said the Jefferson Council on Aging staffers are also contacting the elderly who are part of their program to make sure they are handling the social restrictions brought on by the pandemic.

"So, what we're doing is we're calling the seniors so that they have contact because a lot of them live alone. So, there's contact with another person to ask them how they're doing, to see if they have any needs and of course if they had any kind of mental health issues, like they were really depressed in all, we would refer them to an agency,” Robichaux stated.

And Rodgers said they are exploring digital options for bringing seniors together in large numbers.

"Some of the things the Governor's Office of Elderly Affairs has sent on to us, things like social ZOOM lunches, or ZOOM bingo, so we're looking into that to see how we can implement this,” he said.

Rodgers says they realize some seniors may not have digital devices in their home, so his organization will try to get grants to provide seniors with computers to be used for online gatherings.

"We're trying to find out if it's the possibility if we can get a large number of tablets and with those tablets we're going to be able to distribute those to the seniors who traditionally went to the centers and then we can do some type of remote gathering that way,” said Rodgers.

Local health educator, Dr. Eric Griggs, said even though the state has lifted its stay-at-home order, the elderly are strongly urged to remain home because of the risks associated with the virus.

"Nothing has changed, our seniors and our people with co-morbid conditions are still most at-risk, so we want them to stay safe at home. We want them to practice social distancing, we want them to wash their hands,” said Dr. Griggs. "Only essential travel and of course, we want them to wear a mask if they have to go out."

And Robichaux said because of the pandemic he expects a greater awareness of the challenges facing seniors in communities around the country.

"Oftentimes out of bad things come something good and I think what has come that’s going to be very positive is that people are more aware of the challenges of aging in America and how we need have more programs,” Robichaux stated.

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