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The Dangers of Senior Social Isolation


Photo courtesy North Hills Community Outreach
Photo courtesy North Hills Community Outreach

There is no doubt that social isolation can have a detrimental impact on both mental and physical health. For seniors, this isolation can have an even greater impact. According to the National Council on Aging, social isolation and loneliness can put older adults at greater risk for a host of medical problems including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, weakened immune system, depression, anxiety, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and death.


Assisting seniors facing social isolation is a key focal point for many local organizations, particularly during and in the after math of COVID.



Carla Sandy
Carla Sandy

“At the height of the pandemic, it was frightening for everyone, but for seniors, there was the thought, ‘I might die without seeing my family again,’” Carla Sandy, psychotherapist for Samaritan Counseling, said.


Sandy, who provides counseling services both in person and online to many seniors, explained that now that society has reopened, it is more important than ever for people to get back into what she defines as the public square.


“This includes seeing friends, family, and being in other public places that are a key part of life such as church, going to the movies, community centers and other community activities,” she said.


That isn’t always easy though.


“Those two years (of the pandemic) brought some bad habits, particularly the thought that we don’t have to get out as much anymore, but humans need contact,” she said.


Sandy suggests not only resuming previous activities, but reaching out to explore new opportunities including looking at resources such as meet-up Pittsburgh groups designated for older adults with similar areas of interest.


Another way to combat isolation and loneliness is to have a group of support people, those to interact with on a regular basis including making a schedule to see and visit others. For seniors, mobility may be an important issue that needs to be factored into socialization.


“We do an assessment that includes body, mind, and spirit. We pay attention to the physical aspect of whoever comes through our doors. We talk about physical health and make sure to address mobility if it is an issue,” Sandy said.


For those with physical issues, assistance might be helping to form a support group like Sandy helped organize for one of her clients.


“We worked to help see that someone sees her every day and gets her outside for even just 10 minutes a day,” she said.


Utilizing resources such as Samaritan Counseling, Agency on Aging (AAA), Northern Area Multi Service Center (NAMS) and North Hills Community Outreach (NHCO) is valuable in assisting to combat senior isolation. In addition to providing counseling services, Sandy and her peers serve as liaisons and resources for other support services.


“We will work with other agencies to assist our clients as well,” she said.


North Hills Community Outreach (NHCO) provides a host of services for seniors including transportation through Free Rides for Seniors shuttles; with the In Service of Seniors program which provides visits, and telephone calls; one on one rides by volunteers using their own cars to take seniors to medical appointments, shopping, and running other errands; and food pantries.


“When someone reaches out to us, we do an intake and see how our programs can assist them,” Cathy Pschirer, In-Service of Seniors Coordinator, NHCO, said.


According to Pschirer, volunteers are matched with seniors 60 and older. These volunteers provide visits, rides, and companionship services mentioned above. NHCO will also provide safety checks to make sure seniors are safe in their homes and provide small improvements, such as fire extinguishers, smoke alarms, grab bars and railings.


“People are always thanking me for what we do, but it is really our volunteers. They are truly the backbone of our services,” Pschirer said.


Through the Free Rides for Seniors, transportation is provided to medical and other appointments, visits to friends and family and shopping.


“The rides have made a huge difference in our seniors’ lives as they can visit people, and many have made friends with the volunteer drivers and others on the shuttles. And many of those relationships extend past just the rides,” Tracy Elway, Free Rides for Seniors Team Leader, said.

Northern Area Multi Service Center (NAMS) provides numerous community services in partnerships with other organizations to assist seniors including transportation services, meals, and senior centers throughout Northern Allegheny County according to Brian Metzer, Senior Director of Home and Community Programs. NAMS has four senior centers: one located in Sharpsburg at their headquarters open five days a week; one in Etna open Monday, Wednesday and Friday; one in Allison Park open Tuesdays and Thursdays; and one in Tarentum open five days a week. In addition to a hot lunch, there is various programming at the Centers including crafting, billiards, karaoke, educational speakers, fitness, and bingo. At the Center in Sharpsburg, there is also a gym with a walking track.


“The seniors become like family to each other and staff at our centers. They enjoy each other’s company, follow what is going on in their lives and become a community,” Metzer said.

Many of the seniors actually become volunteers at the centers, helping to lead activities, make and serve the lunches at the Centers and assist in making the 400+ meals that are then delivered to individuals through the Meals on Wheels program.


“This gives them a purpose as well, and adds self-worth and value to their experiences,” Metzer said.


Like many who work with seniors, Metzer and their staff saw the ramifications of the pandemic on some of their seniors.


“Many lost friends during the pandemic and it was hard for them to come back. But they also pushed to come back to be together again.” he said.


For additional resources and information:


Samaritan Counseling:

www.samaritancounseling.net or 1-888-200-9746.


North Hills Community Outreach:

412-487-6316 or www.nhco.org.


NAMS:

Visit www.buildingindependence.org or through the Area Agency on Aging at www.alleghenycounty.us/Human-Services/About/Offices/Area-Agency-on-Aging.aspx.

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