While the novel coronavirus ravages the world’s way of life, another ongoing epidemic has picked up momentum, fueled by the restrictions needed to contain Covid-19.
Loneliness among seniors has been on the rise even before the novel coronavirus necessitated limits on personal contact. Studies by health organizations like the National Institute on Aging reveal that close to 30 percent of seniors live alone in the United States. And while living alone doesn’t always mean a person will be lonely, it can heighten the probability of social isolation.
Some experts say that being lonely can contribute to depression, anxiety, and cognitive decline, including Alzheimer’s disease. Loneliness can also affect overall health and lead to conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, and a weakened immune system—all of which compound the risks for contracting Covid-19.
For decades, the City of East Lansing has recognized the value of providing community activities, classes, and interpersonal connections for seniors. And while this city is not immune from the epidemic of loneliness, Prime Time Seniors Program Director Kelly Arndt believes East Lansing can provide a model for addressing isolation in the community—even during a global pandemic.
“We’ve always including reducing isolation and loneliness among the older population in our annual goals,” said Arndt. “The pandemic really pushed it to the forefront.”
Spanning the ages
Originally established in 1972 under City Manager John Patriarche, Prime Time Seniors has evolved from an intergenerational service involving the city and schools to a nationally-accredited program that engages the entire community.
More than 1,000 members participate in more than 300 activities focused on the physical, intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual and vocational dimensions of wellness. Aside from classes and activities, the program offers services like foot care and blood pressure checks, technology assistance, an emergency call list, chore referrals, and more.
Programs target the 55-plus age group. Most members live in East Lansing, but residents of other areas can join, too. The annual membership fee ranges from $25 to $35 dollars. Funding for programs comes through membership and activity fees, a City budget allocation, grants, and from the Friends of East Lansing Seniors program—a non-profit charitable trust fund established in 1998. More than 150 volunteers provide support and expertise to programs, activities, administration and senior outreach.
“We’re a staple of the community,” said Arndt. “We work to build connections between people—particularly the youth and older populations, which is a key to healthy communities and to aging.”
Among those connections are city-wide projects that pair K-12 students and seniors—like the mural in the alley adjacent to Campbell’s Market. Another grant-funded initiative involves student ambassadors from Michigan State University providing outreach, companionship and help with technology for identified seniors. The program represents a partnership with MSU AgeAlive and the MSU Social Science Scholars program, and will be offered virtually this fall in response to the public health emergency.
“Our goal is to provide students with a wonderful learning experience and to feel more part of our community,” Arndt said. “It’s also a way we can help reduce depression among seniors by providing an interaction and service that fills a need, too.”
While the pandemic necessitated the cessation of all in-person activities, Prime Time Seniors has established systems to remain connected to members. Last year’s focus on computer and technology training helped many Prime Time Seniors improve their comfort level using personal computers and web-based applications. That, Arndt said, made it easier to push communications to Facebook and YouTube, and to encourage members to participate in activities via web-based applications like Zoom.
Links were provided to exercise classes, educational and enrichment videos and community resources for services. Zoom meetings were set up for discussion groups on books and current events. Arndt and volunteers relied on traditional means of interaction, too, including “phone pals” who call home-bound seniors for wellness checks and companionship. Emails go out regularly with program updates, newsletters, and tips for staying engaged. Some seniors even created a “selfie-YouTube” to show the community what they have been up-to and what helps keep them happy during an era of self-isolation.
“As things progress, seniors are finding a way to connect,” said Arndt. “Some are using Zoom, but the challenge is always technology and feeling like you can use it. That’s one of the biggest roadblock we’re trying to address.”
Jim Levande has been involved with Prime Time seniors for a couple decades. He also serves on the East Lansing Senior Citizen Commission and the Age-Friendly Community Committee—a policy initiative informed by the World Health Organization .
Before the pandemic, Levande had been an active member of Prime Time Strummers, joining about 40 ukulele enthusiasts at the Hannah Center for group practice and performance. Today, he plays uke with about 20 strummers via Zoom. He’s also a member of a Prime Time Strummers “road band” that reorganized and gets together through Zoom instead of making visits to assisted living and long-term care facilities.
“My favorite song is ‘Bad Bad Leroy Brown,’” said Levande. “I’m from Chicago—so yes, I’m meaner than a junk yard dog.”
The good-natured, outwardly focused Levande said he’s adapting to social isolation by staying in contact with friends and family anyway he can: by Zoom, Skype, and phone. He also has a “pod” of friends that he shares a glass of wine with occasionally—all while six-feet apart and socially-distanced.
“I’m just going with the flow right now,” he said. “I’d just advise everyone to stay in contact with your friends and family. You need a support system. The more you stay in touch with others, the better things will be.”
Prime Time Seniors member Carol Brownell agrees. While she misses the comradery of the in-person classes on mosaics and fused glass, and going to the Hannah Center for various fitness activities, she stays connected with her Prime Time friends through email and phone.
“I do have a lot of wonderful neighbors and am active in my condo association,” she said. “And I have family and friends to connect with whenever I’m willing and able to do that. But for some seniors, the Prime Time program is their only place to go and socialize. I’m mindful of that and try to reach out and let someone know someone cares about them. That’s important.”