BY JAMES FARRELL
When Grace Sheridan, 81, lost her son to cancer in 2012, the homebound Jackson Heights-based senior sank into a depression and felt lonely.
“I was kind of depressed; I was always stuck in the house,” she said. “I mean you could watch TV, but with the news, all the grief, you get depressed.”
But through a local program hosted by the non-profit Sunnyside Community Services, Sheridan found Irene, a volunteer who comes to visit, purely as a friend, every Saturday. Over the past four and a half years, Sheridan and Irene have become very close friends. The pair do arts and crafts, making Christmas and Halloween cards. On nice days, Irene will help Sheridan walk up and down the block with her walker for fresh air. Sheridan has even met Irene’s family.
“It’s changed my life, it really has,” Sheridan said. She laughs out loud when she talks about playing the card game War with Irene. “I haven’t played that since I was a kid,” she says.
Especially during the holiday season, when the weather gets colder, many homebound seniors may battle with loneliness and isolation. But a new campaign by the AARP and the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a) is trying to raise awareness of the health concerns of isolation in seniors and highlight resources to help them stay active and social—like Sheridan.
The nonprofit n4a is a membership association that coordinates local agencies around the country that provide resources to aging Americans. Every year, it hosts a “Home for the Holidays” campaign, which focuses on a specific senior issue. This year’s issue of isolation has had “unprecedented” support, featuring partnerships with over 130 local agencies, including New York City’s Department for the Aging (DFTA), which provides funding to programs that help aging Americans. For instance, DFTA provides funding to Sunnyside Community Services, as well as Citymeals on Wheels, the food delivery organization that funds Sunnyside Community Service’s Friendly Visitor Program, which paired Sheridan and Irene.
The campaign partners with these local agencies and works with media outlets to help connect seniors to local resources that can alleviate loneliness. It also seeks to raise awareness about the health risks associated with isolation. An explanatory brochure given out to agencies called “Expand Your Circles: Prevent Isolation and Loneliness As You Age,” outlines some of those risks.
Increased isolation and loneliness is associated with higher rates of chronic health conditions, weakened immune systems, depression and dementia. One estimate says that prolonged isolation can be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. One in five adults over 50 is affected by the problem. (See the brochure here: http://bit.ly/2gj3Fsa.)
“Mental health is linked to physical health, and we want our seniors to be healthy and stay in their homes in the community as long as possible,” said Erin Neubauer-Keyes, program coordinator of the Sunnyside Community Services Friendly Visitors Program. “And to feel connected to another person can completely change everything. It can take somebody who’s depressed and give them a reason to look forward to things again.”
Dallas Jamison, communications director of n4a, explained that area agencies, like DFTA and the programs it supports, have been so responsive to this issue because they see the consequences up close. They often catch seniors’ isolation before anybody else, because they may provide services to homebound seniors such as transportation, food delivery or socialization.
“They are often on the front lines of seeing the problem of somebody who is isolated or lonely, maybe before anybody else,” said Jamison, “because they’re already there.”
The campaign is seeking to make everyone aware of the risks of isolation and to make people more attuned to warning signs, but also seeks to connect aging Americans to resources like the Friendly Visitor Services in Sunnyside so they can be active and social.
“As you can imagine, there’s a lot of stigma attached to owning up to being lonely or isolated,” said Jamison. “It’s not something people want to advertise, necessarily. But we want to let people know that it’s okay, and there are resources out there in your community.”
Reach James Farrell at (718) 357-7400 x127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @farrellj329.
Update: A previous version of this article stated that the Department for the Aging funded Sunnyside Community Services’ Friendly Visitor Program. This was incorrect. The article has been corrected to reflect that the Department for the Aging provides funding to several programs at Sunnyside Community Services, but Citymeals on Wheels funds the Friendly Visitor Program.