CODY — Faye Livingston, 78, has been pretty homebound since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Although she has been living with her daughter, who had a recent bout with the virus, put Livingston in nearly complete isolation.
“I stay in the bedroom a lot. Any form of communication is a relief, almost, even a telemarketer,” Livingston said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has meant isolation and seclusion for many seniors. Shortly after the pandemic began, the Cody Senior Center initiated a “Call a Senior” program to help combat these issues.
“Just saying, ‘We care about you,’” Senior Center director Jenny Johnstone-Smith said.
When the Senior Center closed last spring due to COVID-19 concerns, many seniors lost their sole contact to the outside world.
“When you can’t come here, and most of your friends are old, you sadly don’t have many places to go,” volunteer caller Donna Korzendorfer said. “Some of them just want to chat.”
A University of Michigan study performed in June found 56% of people over the age of 50 said they sometimes or often felt isolated from others, more than double the 27% who felt isolated from others in a similar poll in 2018. Nearly half of those polled felt more isolated than they had just before the pandemic arrived in the United States, and a third said they felt they had less companionship than before. A total of 46% of older adults reported that they infrequently interacted with friends, neighbors or family outside their household compared to the 28% who said this in 2018.
Johnstone-Smith, a senior and self-described “strong” individual, said she has felt the impacts of isolation during the pandemic herself, but thankfully has a job to help her retain a certain level of normalcy.
“What’s that like for that person that doesn’t even have that? That really hit me in the last few months,” she said. “Getting that phone call is huge to some of them.”
Korzendorfer said many have communicated to her the calls brighten their day. She gets a lot of answering machines, but for those she does reach it makes the effort well worth it.
“It’s probably the only call they’ll get for the day,” she said.
Making about 40-60 calls per week, Korzendorfer has been reaching out to center members to see how they are doing, if they need any assistance or information about resources, and if any other questions can be answered. Members are also informed about events occurring at the Senior Center, which on Monday fully opened for the first time since the pandemic began.
From a dedicated corner in a Senior Center hallway, Korzendorfer makes the calls, a smile rarely absent from her face. A widow to two husbands who each died of cancer, she said the decision to volunteer at the Senior Center rather than a medical-related cause came simply.
“Had enough of that,” she said with a chuckle.
The calls can serve a variety of needs.
Sometimes the seniors need help getting groceries, other times it might be cat litter, and then on other occasions, it could be as simple as having someone else to talk to.
“They’re really happy to hear from somebody,” Korzendorfer said.
After an initial push made by the facility’s staff to reach their entire 300-plus membership, Korzendorfer now comes in every Friday to continue making the check-ups.
“We feel like we’re moving this iceberg with an ice pick,” Johnstone-Smith said.
John Treese, 84, has been another one of the call recipients. After recovering from COVID-19, he is now living with a friend, but still receives the Senior Center phone calls on his cell phone.
“They ask me how I’ve been doing, how I’ve been,” Treese said.
Johnstone-Smith said “there’ll always be a need” for the Call a Senior program, and has no plans to wind it down even if the pandemic wanes.
Livingston said the calls have brought some light to her day, often receiving them from a bedroom chair with her little white kitten at her side. The communication filled a void left in her life by the absence of the Senior Center, an outlet providing much more than just lunch service or a bingo playing opportunity.
“I went there more for socializing than eating,” she said.