The world of COVID-19 — Seniors learn to adapt
- Published: April 10, 2020
An aging community, Yellow Springs is rich in elders, including many in their 80s and beyond who remain active and engaged. Some volunteer at local nonprofits, practice yoga at the Senior Center and exercise at the Wellness Center. All in all, many live busy lives.
But not now.
Since mid-March, the social lives of older villagers have ground to a halt. Like the rest of Yellow Springs since Gov. Mike DeWine’s order to shelter in place, local seniors are staying home. And the stakes are higher for them. While the coronavirus hits all age groups, it hits seniors hardest, with an estimated death rate of 10 to 15% for those over 80.
How are older Yellow Springers faring in this new isolation? To find out, the News spoke to about a dozen villagers, most in their 80s or older.
Overall, according to one person after another, they’re getting through it. A good attitude helps, several said, and many led their remarks with gratitude. Their basic needs of food and transportation are being met, and they’re grateful to friends, family, neighbors and the local Senior Center for making that happen. They’re grateful to Ohio Gov. DeWine and Dr. Amy Acton for trustworthy guidance, and feel fortunate to live in a small town that’s working hard to meet seniors’ needs.
But they worry. Yet the worry is not for themselves, even though they’re at highest risk. Most say they’ve lived long enough that illness and the prospect of death are no longer strangers.
“I’m 87 years old,” said Ilse Tebbetts. “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.”
Rather, they worry for others, and especially their children. Some have children in coronavirus hotspots, and these are especially concerning.
There are variations, of course, among villagers’ responses, with some differences linked to temperament and some to circumstance. Those who see themselves as loners say they’re having an easier time than those who love being out and about. Still, people who live alone have distinct challenges.
Yet all say they feel the importance of being connected to others.
“All of us need to have people call us and check on us,” Barbara Mann said. “It can be very lonely.”
A strange sort of world
At 86, Joan Horn has for decades lived alone, finding that solitude comfortable and rewarding. She also leads an active life, volunteering each week to read to those in assisted living and driving for the Senior Center. She shares regular activities with longtime friends.
That is, she did.
The sudden halting of all that activity has left Horn feeling surprisingly unmoored, she said recently.
“It’s feeling sort of like I’m floating away, that I don’t know what I should be doing,” she said. “It’s a strange sort of world.”
Adding to the discomfort is her hearing loss. An avid listener to NPR news, Horn finds that familiar voices are now less clear since the news personalities are wearing masks.
“That’s the hardest part,” Horn said of her hearing challenge, now that faces are covered. “I realize how much I’ve been reading lips, and I can’t do that now.”
Horn finds comfort calling up her children, who are spread out across the country, and seeing her brother and his wife, who live in town. And while she loves reading, she’s getting tired of her own books.
She also finds pleasure in the small moments of connection with her neighbors, and the people she sees when walking outside.
“Those little connections, just looking at someone, those are meaningful,” she said. “It seems this period shows us the importance of getting to know neighbors, keeping in touch in a neighborly way. We should do it as much as we can.”
No more party
A beloved longtime music teacher, Shirley Mullins knows pretty much everyone in town, including generations of local children, now grown. She has so many friends that she thinks of going downtown as a party, and when she goes shopping, she tells herself that she’s off to the party.
But for now the party is over.
She misses the party acutely. While some might assume playing her cello would be a comfort to Mullins, playing music by herself doesn’t satisfy, because for her, music is all about being with people.
Other things keep her going. She’s full of gratitude, including for her son, Art, and his family in town.
“I have a house, I have food, I have friends who wave at me from the street,” she said.
Still, said Mullins, who lives alone since her husband’s death two years ago, “It’s a very lonely time.”
Also, while not usually a worrier, she worries about her younger son, Michael, who lives with his family in Manhattan, in the center of the pandemic in the U.S.
To keep up her spirits, Mullins listens to music and rereads favorite books. And each evening, she sifts through boxes of cards and letters she’s received from former students, family or friends.
“It helps to feel connected to my family, my friends, my history,” she said.
Juanita Richardson is another who feels acutely the loss of others in this new reality.
“I’m a people person,” she said. “I like to run my mouth.”
As someone in her 80s with diabetes and heart problems, Richardson also feels very aware of the coronavirus threat.
“I’m at high risk,” she said, so she’s not going out at all.
The people she misses especially are those in her church community at St. Paul Catholic Church, which she and her husband, Paul, have attended for decades. Along with worship and receiving communion, she misses the fellowship of coffee hour following the service.
She’s appreciative of the support of her neighbor, Cheryl Durgans, a younger woman who helps the Richardsons in whatever way they need.
And her Christian faith sustains her.
“I believe if God brings it to you, He’ll take you through it,” Richardson said. “I feel Jesus by my side.”
What Maggie Heston, 89, misses most is the Yellow Springs Senior Center. The center provides her both structure and friends as, until a few weeks ago, she attended an activity there almost each day of the week, including yoga on Monday, Constitutional history on Wednesday and creative writing on Friday.
But Heston is adapting. She found a chair yoga workout on YouTube, calls a writing buddy each week to share their new work, and she’s growing tomatoes on her windowsill.
She’s also buoyed by feelings of thankfulness, Heston said. She’s grateful for her daughter, Melissa, and family in Yellow Springs, and especially for having had a long life and five wonderful children.
And in this quiet new world, she’s grateful for her imagination, and for being a writer. She has lots of time now to work on a story based on the life of her grandmother, who as a young woman immigrated to this country from Croatia.
“She’s in Paris right now,” Heston said of the story she’s writing. “She’s eating dinner on a boat floating down the Seine. And it’s spring.”
Mary and Louis Sims got a taste of the coronavirus crisis recently when Louis had a mysterious health ailment — not coronavirus — that led to his spending a few nights in the hospital. While Mary was allowed to stay in his room the first night, the second night she was not, as hospital officials were saving space for those with coronavirus.
Following a stroke several years ago, Louis is partially paralyzed, and Mary is his primary caregiver. Now, following his new diagnosis and medication, he’s doing better, so Mary’s relieved, and glad to be home. She’s also grateful to their downstairs tenant, who shops for the couple so they don’t have to go out.
And Mary feels especially fortunate to be living in their South Corry Street neighborhood. The area has two block parties a year, so that people already know each other. And during this stressful time, neighbors are meeting each evening outside — keeping a safe distance apart — to chat with each other. The gathering helps the Sims, whose children live out of state, feel connected to a group that takes care of each other.
“It’s easy to stay in touch,” Mary Sims said.
Neighbors have also made a difference to Barbara Mann, a longtime villager who lives by herself on South College Street.
All in all, Mann feels mentally prepared for this time of isolation, as she sees herself as a “hermit” who doesn’t socialize much. And as a retired statistician from Wright State University, she finds the coronavirus data to be an interesting study in statistics.
Yet there are worries.
In recent months, Mann spent time in the hospital following a small stroke. She wonders now whether she could get hospital care if she needs it.
“As one gets older, one’s health deteriorates,” she said. “It gets scary to have to deal with it on your own.”
But several neighbors have stepped up during the current crisis, including a new neighbor who she didn’t know well before. Their caring helps her feel more secure.
“I know a lot of people in town who feel supported, living here,” she said. “I can’t imagine having to go through this anyplace else.”
Ringing the bell
The neighborhood of Omar Circle has been essential to the lives of the Felder family, one of the first families to move to the street in 1960, when developer Omar Robinson opened the properties to African-American homeowners at a time when many black families couldn’t buy homes in the area.
It was a close-knit area then for middle-class black professionals like Jim, a microbiologist, and Betty, a teacher. After school, kids ran from one yard to another, with somebody’s mom always there to watch over them. But the neighborhood has changed over the years, and the Felders feel less connected. Many of the old families have moved out, and younger families have taken their places.
Still, the couple is doing fine during this coronavirus crisis, Jim said. Their older son, Greg, who lives in Xenia, has been a big help, including driving them back from Georgia when they had to return early from their winter home, due to the health scare.
And the Felders feel grateful for each other.
“We can talk and fuss,” Jim said. “It’s a comfort.”
Most days they also walk around Omar Circle to stay active, although they see few others outside.
And each evening at 6 p.m., Jim Felder stands on his porch and takes part in the Yellow Springs Wave. He bangs a cowbell during the nightly event, when villagers are urged, by the mayor, to wave or make noise in an attempt to connect with their neighbors, to lessen the isolation of this time.
Usually he’s the only one out on a porch making a noise, Jim said. But recently a new neighbor who was out in his yard looked up when he rang the cowbell.
“He was listening,” Jim said.
Like many interviewed for this story, Dorothy Scott feels in many ways fortunate. Her sister, Ilse, lives next door in Friends Care Independent Living, and her son, Evan, lives in town. And her husband, Bill, is just across the road at the Friends rehabilitation wing, being cared for by an excellent staff.
But circumstances are harder for Scott than for many. Friends Care, like all nursing homes in the state, closed its doors to all visitors, including family members, several weeks ago. So she can’t see her husband, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2005, and has been in rehab only three weeks.
“I miss him terribly,” Scott said last week. “I hate it that I can’t see him.”
She worries about Bill feeling lost or confused in a new, strange environment, so she takes meaningful items to the staff to give him, including calendars with photos of eagles, his favorite animal. Still, she thinks continually about ways she could help him adapt, while she can’t be there in person.
And while she wants to stay in close contact, she worries about how her efforts to do so could harm him. She wants to make sure there’s a staff member in his room when she calls, because if he tries to stand to get the phone by himself, he could fall. But sometimes when she calls to get help from staff, the phone at the center rings and rings, and she never gets through.
Scott understands this is a stressful time for Friends Care staff as well, that they’re busy and doing their best. She knows her husband gets excellent care, and that’s comforting.
But it’s hard.
Along with trying to anticipate Bill’s needs from a distance, she tries hard to handle the stress and take care of herself.
“I want to be well,” she said. “When this is over, I want to see him as soon as I can.”
Serving all seniors
The Yellow Springs Senior Center is a bustling place in normal times, with daily classes and services for its almost 400 members. And since the current crisis began, even though the center is physically closed, the staff is as busy, perhaps busier, than ever.
“We’re trying to address the immediate concerns of older adults in the community,” center director Karen Wolford said last week, stating the center sees its mission now as reaching out to all seniors in town, whether members or not, a number of about 600.
A priority is providing food to seniors isolated in their homes. For that, Wolford ramped up a new grocery delivery service in coordination with Tom’s Market, in which, after the center takes orders, volunteers shop at Tom’s and then deliver the groceries to homes, all the while taking safety precautions.
The center takes orders and delivers five days a week, with orders increasing last week to 13 or 14 a day. Part of that increase is because the center now delivers food to any villager who needs it, recognizing that the need extends beyond seniors.
Those who need food delivery are encouraged to email orders to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 937-767-5751.
No other Greene County senior center is offering food delivery, according to Greene County Council on Aging director Karen Puterbaugh this week, adding that other towns don’t have a local, accessible grocery, such as Tom’s Market.
Wolford has also sent out automatic weekly calls to local seniors, giving information and asking people to call if they have needs. Those considered especially vulnerable, such as the recently widowed, received personal calls, and the reach of personal calls, made by volunteers, is now widening to include more seniors, Wolford said.
“We know there’s a loneliness piece to this,” she said. “The isolation gets to all of us.”
And late last week, she sent letters to seniors, with suggestions of ways to stay physically and mentally active.
The center also continues its regular services, including providing transportation to doctor’s appointments, and helping those turning 65 sign up for Medicare.
Along with providing current services, Wolford is thinking ahead to the needs of seniors months down the road.
She doesn’t see this crisis ending anytime soon. She’s heard from some older villagers who don’t plan to leave their homes until a coronavirus vaccine or treatment is found, so she’s anticipating that Senior Center activities will eventually go online, along with other center services.
But she’s also concerned that moving activities online will challenge many seniors, some of whom don’t have the needed training or access to computers.
“Older adults would feel even more isolated,” she said.
Along with increased feelings of isolation could come more depression and health problems, Wolford said.
It’s all complex and concerning, and Wolford is thinking ahead. What keeps her from feeling overwhelmed is the support she feels from other Yellow Springs leaders, including daily phone calls with Village government and the Yellow Springs Community Foundation.
The local effort to address the crisis is impressive, according to Wolford, who lives in Dayton.
“The village has done an awesome job,” she said. “It has been something to watch as a person who hasn’t lived in a small community. It has been something to see.”