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Senior loneliness described as epidemic

Cara Vanderpool’s grandmother missed her family.

She had been feeling increasingly lonely and isolated at the retirement home where she had lived for three years — a place she used to enjoy.

But back in March, COVID-19 safety measures such as restrictions on family visits took effect at senior care facilities like hers to protect residents.

Vanderpool’s family had a back-and-forth debate about whether to leave, but ultimately her grandmother, 93, wanted to be close to family again, so she moved out July 10, said Vanderpool.

Loneliness was a serious mental health problem for seniors long before COVID-19. According to a 2020 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, nearly a quarter of adults 65 and older are socially isolated.

Since the pandemic started, however, the problem has worsened for seniors,

The Oregon Department of Human Services announced increased restrictions on visits to long-term care facilities and residential group homes March 17. Only essential medical and emergency personnel were permitted.

“We know that these restrictions are a hardship for residents of care facilities as well as their family and friends, but they are essential to mitigate the spread of disease,” DHS Director Fariborz Pakseresht said in a March 17 statement.

Vanderpool said she understands the rationale behind the restrictions, but she believes isolation is also hurting people like her grandmother, who now lives next door to her granddaughter.

“I would rather risk getting sick and be happy than be in a little cocoon and depressed,” Vanderpool recalled her grandmother telling her.

Medford retirement homes have tried adapting to the new rules since they took effect.

According to a statement from Radiant Senior Living, which operates the Barnett Woods retirement home in east Medford, residents can connect with family members through Skype using touch-screen tablets designed for seniors.

Jeremiah Gray, director of operations for Bonaventure, a senior living center in east Medford, said the facility has provided iPads so residents can talk with loved ones online.

Gray acknowledged, however, that some residents feel like their rights have been taken away.

“We’re caught between a rock and a hard place,” he said, adding that while Bonaventure has tried to advocate for its residents’ needs, the facility needs to follow state guidelines to keep people safe.

“It’s a tough thing they’re up against,” Gray said.

On July 20, DHS announced facilities could begin providing limited, outdoor visits for residents if they followed required COVID-19 safeguards.

Mike McCormick, interim director of the DHS Office of Aging and People with Disabilities, said in a statement he hoped the new policy would provide some relief to residents.

Bill Fitzpatrick, senior services coordinator for Lines for Life, a regional nonprofit that provides mental health services, said the pandemic has exacerbated the loneliness felt by seniors.

“It’s almost at an epidemic-like state,” Fitzpatrick said.

Last year, Lines for Life and Clackamas County Behavioral Health launched the Senior Loneliness Hotline, a 24-hour crisis line for adults 55 and older. More than 40 call workers manage the line and provide emotional support. They can also connect callers to other resources.

Fitzpatrick said the hotline helps seniors make personal connections. “In a very basic way it resembles a conversation you might have with a friendly stranger,” he said.

The Oregon Health Authority partnered with Lines for Life in April to expand the loneliness hotline’s reach statewide.

In June, the hotline received more than 1,200 calls, according to Fitzpatrick, a record. He anticipates the call volume for July will break it.

Most calls have come from the Clackamas County area where the hotline initially launched, according to Fitzpatrick, but he says the program wants to reach seniors in rural areas of the state where there is a greater need.

Many of the calls have been from retirement home residents, said Fitzpatrick. “The frustration is palpable.”

You can reach the Senior Loneliness Hotline by calling 503-200-1633.