By Jessie Carson
Renee did not expect to be spending her 23rd year of retirement coaxing herself and her peers through loneliness, fear, and detachment, but as a writer, activist and retired family therapist she was prepared. Little did she realize, she would end up spending over eight months alone, stuck inside in her independent living apartment in a retirement complex outside Washington, DC.
Eager to join a vibrant community, Renee moved into a senior home ten years ago to sustain an active social and cultural life. She explained the allure for many of its residents: “Senior living places are really a phenomenon of American society.” As children grow older and friends pass away, people get tired of living alone in old age” and they want to “stay a bit better mentally when in a social community.” The irony here is the adults in Renee’s senior living, opted in a highly social community. Eight months into the pandemic, they see few solutions both in terms of technology and access to rapid testing.
Before the pandemic, Renee’s senior independent living home consistently held events: group outings to plays, book clubs, art classes, lectures from professors at nearby universities, and more. COVID-19 has turned this refuge into an place of extreme isolation that ironically offers less freedom and interaction than living outside of these communities. “People get tired of living alone in old age and I enjoyed the outings, book clubs, art classes and lectures”. Now she has been confined to her unit with very limited engagement with others and internal streaming channel with subtitles that fails to operate.
If residents want social interaction, they must figure out how to zoom and facetime on their own. This has been especially challenging for single retirees who do not have a partner to consult. Residents need to be empowered with tools and broader access to technology in order to be included in socially distant communication. Equipping these adults has not been a focal point for the majority of senior homes. Much of this technology is new to 2020. Additionally, many retirees were formerly executives and delegated tasks around computers and cellphones to assistants. As isolation continues, mood level decrease, there can be less of an incentive to learn how to opt in to online communication.
Right now, socialization looks like brief hellos in the building elevator and six-foot-apart conversations getting mail. Meals are dropped off twice a day outside apartment doors. This also means that a resident could truly go weeks without interpersonal interaction. According to the CDC and The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, solitude harms cognitive functioning and can speed of dementia by 50%. As of 2020, pre-pandemic, approximately one quarter of Americans over the age of 65 are considered to be socially isolated.
Many independent and assisted care facilities experienced a massive construction boom as private equity firms expanded their portfolio in to the senior living sector in the late 2000s. Privatization has meant access to more options and improved quality of independent living options, but at the same time, the majority of attention and resources has been focused on recruiting new residences and keeping apartments filled according to Senior Housing News. Renee underscores, “Senior homes are a business and like all businesses, they are sustained by cutting costs.” Prior to COVID-19, her senior home underwent a large expansion, and now they’re struggling to fill apartments. Potential resident have opted to stay with family instead during the pandemic. Renee also states, “If a case of COVID-19 enters the building, it could be certain death if spread.” With their bottom line in peril, independent living communities have cut back on resources. Staff has been reduced to minimize virus risk but this also means residents have had to find new ways to facilitate community.
Renee has taken on new responsibilities to keep her neighbors happy and engaged. She helped developed a community group focused on innovating ways to create connection. One task includes checking in on and engaging residents, especially single and windowed neighbors. There is a Floor Leader assigned to each hall. Without these Floor Leaders, there is no guarantee of interpersonal connection because residents and reduced staff are extremely cautious about contact and COVID-19. Another task includes engaging new residences through a buddy system—specifically those who do not have a point of reference for how vibrant the Independent Living community used to be.
Renee is at the forefront of licensing content for the Senior Home’s Closed Caption TV Circuit. An internal channel in the senior home exists; however, it is not managed by the administration. A budget has not been allocated for content, so Renee is researching and strategizing on how to license and stream classes from Great Courses, a series of college-level audio and digital courses. She sees the value and the need for entertainment. She says, “We’ve ironically seen less deaths over these past few months than usual. It could be because people don’t want to die alone.”
Continuing to learn is a massive priority for Renee, and she wants to support conversation and engagement throughout her community. Prolonged minimal human contact and false mythologies on the virus has its toll, especially for older and immunocompromised citizens who still cannot engage in group settings safely. Renee is pushing to deliver content, positive morale and support to her peers. Several of her children live nearby, but interaction is restricted. Several grandchildren wrote her a birthday sign and waved it to her from outside.
Once this is all over, Renee says “I’m really excited to go see family, just to be free and to walk down to the water. I’m excited to just be able to talk to people. It would be fun to go to a movie but that won’t happen anytime soon. The thing is it’s really hard to be restrained as you advance in years. You know you’re going to be diminished. You get angry that it’s taking so long. It’s taking about good times from people who aren’t gone yet.” Until the community has access to rapid tests, until national and statewide policies change, isolation will continue. Renee remains upbeat as she is committed to connecting her community in a time of need.