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Volunteers Serving As Lifelines To Isolated Seniors Amid Pandemic

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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.

Speaker 1: 00:00 Experts say senior loneliness was already rampant before covert 19 the virus and strict stay at home orders have only intensified the situation. Worsening the elderly's physical and emotional wellbeing. KPBS is a meta Sharma spotlights how a local nonprofit is stepping in to help some San Diego seniors who are living on the economic edge cope with the isolation.

Speaker 2: 00:25 The drivers who drop off meals for low income seniors in San Diego first began noticing the changes a few weeks into the Corona virus pandemic. They saw some seniors once well-groomed looking disheveled and or disoriented.

Speaker 3: 00:40 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.

Speaker 2: 00:54 All Downey is president and CEO of serving seniors, a San Diego based nonprofit that focuses on the wellbeing of elderly people.

Speaker 3: 01:04 This was a problem we had before that's only getting worse.

Speaker 2: 01:07 More than 119,000 elderly people live alone in San Diego County. Pre pandemic, many of the neediest among them past their time socializing at the senior center or other public places and running errands under shelter in place orders. The activities have come to a halt and serving seniors drivers are seeing the effects,

Speaker 3: 01:29 depression, moodiness, lack of energy, not wanting to do much of anything. And so we're seeing that with the sort of the physical aspects that people just appearing to be kind of tired and whatnot. And so our drivers are doing their best to engage,

Speaker 2: 01:48 but it's not enough. So Downey says serving seniors has recruited volunteers to phone residents at its affordable housing complexes every few days just to talk.

Speaker 3: 01:58 It could be talking about just what's going on in the world, but 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.

Speaker 2: 02:10 72 year old Esmeralda Sanchez is one of the people slated to get the calls. She says the isolation say for the meal drop-offs has been rough.

Speaker 4: 02:20 It just isn't natural and someone brings food, knocks at the door, drops off food and runs away. They've got to feel like they're the ones that's contaminated.

Speaker 2: 02:30 She says, just learning that she would receive the phone calls has already lifted her spirits.

Speaker 4: 02:36 I feel warm and fuzzy inside

Speaker 2: 02:39 because she believes the calls will go a long way toward making her feel less lonely.

Speaker 4: 02:45 Your voice echoing off the walls is not healthy.

Speaker 2: 02:48 Volunteer Eliza Villa Ruelle a 21 year old UC San Diego student says she hopes the seniors she gets paired with is less concerned about checking in and more in 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 via Wells says she's volunteering for the calls to seniors because she wants to quote, go beyond herself and I believe that within times of uncertainty, especially with Judy COBIT 19 it's important for us to all care for each other. USC, gerontology, professor Donna Benton agrees and urges everyone to pay closer attention to the seniors in their lives to call them more often and search for signs of depression or worsening physical elements. She says it's our societal duty to be concerned.

Speaker 5: 03:38 If we don't care about the generation that's older than us by several generations, it almost is a reflection of how we feel about our own aging process. I like a quote that I read recently in a book on ageism and they said that ageism is a prejudice against your own future self.

Speaker 1: 03:58 Joining me is KPBS investigative reporter of Meetha Sharma. Amica welcome to the program.

Speaker 5: 04:04 It's good to be with you remotely.

Speaker 1: 04:07 Yes. And I know that you've been following the effects of covert 19 on seniors who are isolated in nursing homes. I'm wondering though, how did you find out about this story?

Speaker 5: 04:19 Well, you know, for the last couple of years I have from time to time swiped in and focused on stories related to the elderly and from reporting. Last year I already knew that loneliness, isolation was a huge problem among seniors even before Kobe came along. But we also knew that that seniors who lived alone, um, didn't get into, uh, a lot of different activities. They still have human contact because they would go to the grocery store or they would go to the senior center. They met with friends, they went, uh, you know, they hung out with people, but they can't do that now. So I called Paul Downey of serving seniors, uh, which serves meals to thousands of low income seniors each day. And I wanted to know from him what was he seeing and hearing about seniors who were by themselves under the lockdown and what he said, uh, pretty much confirmed what we had seen. And then he told us about this new senior connections program.

Speaker 1: 05:29 Now were you able to meet any of the people that you profile or were you able to meet them in person or are you forced to interview them remotely?

Speaker 5: 05:39 Well, I interviewed Paul Downey, um, and Eliza V ever. Well, she was one of the volunteers for the program and I'm a gerontologist by the name of Donna Benton from USC. I interviewed all three of them, uh, through zoom calls. Um, but the senior whom I profiled for a separate piece and then included in the senior connections program story as Meralda Sanchez. She said she was fine with meeting us in person. I wore a mask. The videographer, Andy wore a mask as Morel did. She brought ABAs but she decided that she wouldn't wear a mask. Anyway, we sat far apart from her. Uh, we met in her room. We spent about an hour and a half with her. Uh, we had a great time. She sang a whole bunch of songs for us. Um, and, and I think it was probably good for her to, to meet with us and, and it was really, it was just a very, um, delightful experience meeting with her.

Speaker 1: 06:39 How were the volunteers in serving seniors telephone program recruited?

Speaker 5: 06:46 Well, uh, the program has, uh, has taken some students who were part of a class at UC San Diego and asked anyone in there if they'd like to volunteer for the program. And so they had some takers there, but pretty much anyone is welcome to participate in this. And I know that they're still taking volunteers.

Speaker 1: 07:07 They are still accepting volunteers. And that's at serving seniors? Yes. Now there have been hints that the stay at home order might last longer for people over the ages of let's say 65 or 70 than for younger people. What have you learned about the psychological side effects of this kind of prolonged isolation?

Speaker 5: 07:28 Well, those side effects are pretty profound. Um, living alone without seeing or talking to anyone can lead to depression. It can lead to anxiety, it can cause confusion. It can worsen existing illnesses like heart disease and diabetes. In fact, loneliness is considered so damaging that researchers say it's the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Speaker 1: 07:57 Now, were you able to find out anything about how seniors stuck at home are passing the time now?

Speaker 5: 08:04 Well, I talked to one woman earlier this week. Um, she works full time. She's in her early sixties. She does zoom calls almost every evening. A group zoom calls and they talk about current events and people on these phone calls and they try to figure out what's going on with Kogan 19, she's got a very eclectic group of people, um, people who follow politics, people who follow science. And she said that they have very vibrant, very robust conversations each evening. I know that Esmerelda Sanchez is singing her heart out. She plays the guitar. She loves to sing old songs. Um, she also has puppets that she entertains herself with. Um, but she, you know, she, she mentioned something interesting. She says the has forced her to do some inner reflection. She says she's decided to make amends with a sister who she hadn't spoken to in decades. She reached out to her and now she says she talks to her almost every day.

Speaker 1: 09:10 That's a wonderful story and thank you and me that I've been speaking with KPBS and investigative reporter Amica Sharma. Thanks a lot for, for telling us all about that.

Speaker 5: 09:19 Good to talk to you, Maureen.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.