Life gets harder. By the time a person reaches 80, they’ve had many losses and experiences that have shocked them into the reality of frailty and vulnerability. And, without tools or information on how to manage all this emotional pain, many older people become estranged, isolated and depressed.
Share the Care visits were initially stopped during the COVID shelter in place order. We called and talked to many older adults, and you know what we learned? That life isn’t much different for them, with or without COVID. Many hardly ever leave their house, nor entertain many visitors anyway. In several cases, life with COVID even got better because children took their parents in to live with them during the crisis. And, another thing that happened with COVID: They got more food. Keeping people fed became a priority in our community, and so deliveries of free groceries became a priority of many human service programs.
So, while they were being showered with cans of fruit cocktail and bags of rice and beans, no one was actually looking into their kitchens or refrigerators to find out what was really happening to all this abundance. And, when Share the Care started making visits again, what we found was canned food and rotting produce left in bags and boxes on the kitchen floor.
Most older people living alone do not cook. A pre-made, home delivered meal might get heated up in the microwave, but very often it gets placed in the freezer for “later.” We’ve opened freezers stacked with meals going back several months.
Older people like food that is very sweet, or very salty. When asked what they’d like for a meal treat, we hear MacDonald’s or Wendy’s. And, it’s a hamburger, french fries and a coke that bring happiness. Even for those with diabetes or other chronic illnesses where diet makes a difference. And, one meal a day seems to be the norm, with some light snacking in-between. But the best thing would be for someone to come over, cook a meal together, and dine. Spending time in conversation is the true value of the meal. Dropping off groceries and meals doesn’t nourish the battered soul.
Many older people rely on mood altering substances to get through the day. Whether it’s alcohol, an anti-depressant or opiates, we see it often enough to recognize the impact it has on our medical system, as people physically deteriorate and become more frail over time.
We can put in all kinds of safety devices in the home, but someone falling down because they’ve had three glasses of wine, or are taking three different medications with dizzying side effects, is beyond our capacity to manage.
Sometimes older people want to die, they’ve had enough loss and trauma and are asking for mercy in having it all stop. We offer help, we have in-home counseling available through Mentis, and more often than not, it’s turned down. No matter how bad someone might feel in the day-to-day, being labeled with a “mental” problem is worse.
People who seem to suffer the most are those without family or meaningful relationships. In one case, a woman had all four of her children die, and is now caring for a husband with dementia. In another situation, a 97 year old woman, losing her eyesight, is saying her life will be unbearable is she is unable to read.
Share the Care offers help, but it’s not always accepted. Walkers and canes are placed against walls, driving continues even though their license has been suspended and medication doses are missed and forgotten.
We have a proliferation of senior services offering help in our community…but, the truth is, how does one navigate a life process where loss is the dominating factor? Social workers, nurses, aides and caregivers are strapped for time, where time is needed most. It’s also true that professionals can never replace the connection of family and friends.
Sitting with the tears of recent widows, the laments of those estranged from adult children and the fears of illnesses without cures, brings up fear of aging. No one wants to suffer a continuous string of loss. But, that is a reality of age. It is a truth.
And, so the loneliness of COVID, well … it wasn’t so bad for the older folks. That’s normal. As one woman told me, “I’m used to being alone. Sometimes I don’t see another person for a whole week. My daughter lives in Minnesota, she calls every Sunday.”