As the city slowly reopens, vulnerable senior residents continue to isolate
When the shelter-in-place order was announced in mid-March, 73-year-old Petaluma resident and retired nurse Grace Ricco-Pena initially thought it wouldn’t disrupt her life all that much.
She hadn’t left her home in months, and had long ago conceded she would never drive again or make her own grocery trips. Since she entered at-home hospice care in January, she had been living a fairly isolated life already.
“I never really go out for many reasons. One is that I can’t walk anymore. The other is that I’m on oxygen all the time,” Ricco-Pena said. “It’s definitely like being in a prison, there’s no way around that.”
While the coronavirus had little effect on her already-limited ability to leave her home, she soon discovered it would sever her most treasured remaining connections to the outside world. She used to host friends in her home for daily visits – a different one each day of the week – to come and talk, share news and create what Ricco-Pena called a “great distraction.”
With the exception of her 35-year-old son, who lives with her and is her primary caretaker, she hasn’t been able to talk to anyone face-to-face for months. And even if restrictions were lifted tomorrow, she said she could never feel comfortable inviting people into her home as she did before while the virus remains a threat.
“I do miss people, and the life energy of having people around,” she said. “But I’m very vulnerable to the coronavirus. If I got it, I would just die. I don’t have any pretense about that.”
Although the anticipated reopening of hair salons, restaurants and bars are seen as a step forward in easing shelter-in-place restrictions, vulnerable elder adults like Ricco-Pena remain at-risk to a virus that continues to circulate within the community. Despite this gradual reopening and a misguided sense of relaxation among the shoppers and browsers that fill downtown streets, not much has changed for Petaluma’s senior population.
“The needs of our seniors are huge,” said Elece Hempel, Executive Director of Petaluma People Services Center. “Even though it seems like the rest of the world is opening up, those 65 and older are still not allowed out of their houses really until phase 4.”
It’s this kind of social isolation experienced by Ricco-Pena and other older residents that is increasingly concerning to local senior groups and social service providers.
In Petaluma, where 19% of population is 60 or older, community groups and services are continuing their scramble to provide support and assistance for hundreds of seniors. And as the isolation and disruption to daily life approaches the four month mark, concerns over mental health are getting louder.
“So many of these seniors that have been staying at home are now at their breaking points,” Hempel said. “Caregivers are calling saying they’re exhausted, and we’re seeing some seniors age faster. We’re seeing declines in cognitive and physical ways.”
The nonprofit Petaluma People Services Center has seen a nearly two-fold increase in the amount of meals they provide to seniors through their Senior Café and Meals on Wheels programs these last few months. Other services, such as case management, caregiver support and adult day care have either been canceled or reformulated to operate virtually.
The organization also launched a program connecting volunteers with seniors for daily social phone chats called “You Are Not Alone” in an attempt to maintain connections to older adults and establish a channel where they can share their worries, concerns and difficulties.
“I try not to paint a dire picture, but the common sense is that everything is different and seniors have always been in a vulnerable category, and that’s exacerbated by COVID-19,” said the nonprofit’s Director of Senior Service Monte Cimino. “Some people have adapted to it, and some people haven’t.”
73-year-old volunteer Jude Mion has been making daily “You Are Not Alone” calls with an elderly Point Reyes resident who also lives with a disability that makes grocery shopping trips an hours-long endeavor. Mion spends between 20 and 50 minutes on the phone every day.
“I think it’s good for her because she doesn’t go out at all other than on Mondays when she shops, so I’m one of the few people she can talk to now,” Mion said.
For more mobile seniors, 55 and up membership organization The Village Network is also navigating virtual tools to make up for shuttered offices, canceled events and get-togethers.
Volunteer Manager Joanne Martin Braun said the 6-year-old organization, which includes about 120 paying members and up to 80 non-member volunteers, is finding its groove with virtual events, mixers and classes. But requests for grocery shopping, medication pickup, sanitizing supplies and masks have remained steady since mid-March, she said.
“For the most part, people are still quite cautious and are aware there is a virus still,” Martin Braun said. “There are some people who are really lonely and struggling, but a lot of people are using this time to begin new hobbies and virtually maintain social connections.”
For Ricco-Pena, although she desperately misses being able to speak to someone in-person, she said she feels like she’s in much better shape than other seniors. As a former nurse, she recalls seeing many elder patients whose mental health deteriorated from living in complete isolation, and considers herself lucky in comparison.
In just a few days, she said she’s having a motorized lift installed near her front door by local nonprofit Rebuilding Together Petaluma. Once operational, she’ll be able to leave her home and sit in the garden independently for the first time in many months.
“I do miss that loss of being near a human spirit, but I have so many advantages between my son and friends so I try not to dwell on it,” she said. “I think this is going to be the last summer of my life, so I’m just looking forward to spending as much of it outside as I can.”
(Contact Kathryn Palmer at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)