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Volunteers Serving As Lifelines To Isolated Seniors Amid Pandemic

An elderly woman holds hands with a younger person in this undated photo.

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Above: An elderly woman holds hands with a younger person in this undated photo.

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A new program is meant to stave off senior loneliness — already widespread before COVID-19 but now intensified amid strict stay-at-home orders.

Aired: May 18, 2020 | Transcript

Just weeks into the pandemic, drivers for the San Diego nonprofit Serving Seniors were noticing changes when they dropped off meals at the doors of their low-income elderly clients.

Some, once well-groomed, looked disheveled or disoriented or both.

“They're observing people who they see physically deteriorating because for the last six weeks, they've been sitting in their small single-room occupancy unit or small apartment and unable to get out,” said Paul Downey, president and chief executive officer of Serving Seniors, which delivers 6,000 meals a day. “This was a problem we had before that's only getting worse.”

More than 119,000 elderly people live alone in San Diego County, according to the California Department of Aging.

Pre-pandemic, many of the neediest among them socialized at the senior center or other public places and ran errands. Under shelter-in-place orders, their activities ground to a halt.

Researchers say loneliness and continuous solitude is the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

“We really know that if you are lonely, it can lead to physical problems like shortness of breath and anxiety,” said USC gerontology professor Donna Benton. “You may be more likely to have high blood pressure problems, overeat that can lead to problems with your weight.”

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Reported by Amita Sharma

Benton said living alone can also compromise mental health. And Serving Seniors’ drivers are seeing the effects.

“Depression, moodiness, lack of energy, not wanting to do much of anything,” Downey said. “And so our drivers are doing their best to engage.”

But it’s not enough.

So Downey has launched the Serving Seniors Connections Program through which volunteers regularly phone elderly people it serves, just to talk.

“It could be talking about just what's going on in the world,” Downey said. “Whatever it is, it's just a conversation so that there's a real live human being that you're able to be connected to.”

Seventy-two-year-old Esmerelda Sanchez is one of the people slated to get the calls. She said the isolation, save for the meal drop-offs, has been rough.

“It just isn't natural,” Sanchez said. “For people to be in the house and someone brings food, knocks at the door, drops off food and runs away, they've got to feel like they're the ones this contaminated.”

She said her spirits are already lifted in anticipation of the phone calls.

“I feel warm and fuzzy inside,” Sanchez said.

She believes the calls will go a long way toward making her feel less lonely.

“Your voice echoing off the walls is not healthy,” she said. “To get feedback, that's not coming from your own senses. That's healthy. And you need to hear, `Really? Oh, well, good luck with that. Oh, I'm glad that you're well.’”

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Eliza Villarruel, a 21-year-old UC San Diego student, is one of several volunteers who will be matched with seniors for the phone calls.

Villarruel said she wants the chats to be less about checking in and geared more toward getting to know a new person.

“I hope that this person is able to learn from me just as much as I'm able to learn from them,” Villarruel said. “I hope that they are able to open up to me and are able to kind of interact with me in a way that they would not consider it a formal thing.”

Villarruel said she’s volunteering for the calls to seniors because she wants to “go beyond herself.”

“And I believe that within times of uncertainty, especially due to Covid-19, it's important for us to all care for each other,” Villarruel said.

Especially for seniors.

Benton, the USC professor, urges everyone to pay closer attention to the older people in their lives by calling them more often and searching for signs of depression or worsening physical ailments.

She said it’s our societal duty to be concerned.

“If we don’t care about the generation that’s older than us, it is almost a reflection of how we feel about our own aging process,” Benton said. “I like a quote that I read recently in a book on ageism which is `that ageism is a prejudice against your own future self.’”

Listen to this story by Amita Sharma.

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Photo of Amita Sharma

Amita Sharma
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs an investigative reporter for KPBS, I've helped expose political scandals and dug into intractable issues like sex trafficking. I've raised tough questions about how government treats foster kids. I've spotlighted the problem of pollution in poor neighborhoods. And I've chronicled corporate mistakes and how the public sometimes ends up paying for them.

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