Volunteers reaching out to the elderly at risk during the pandemic

When Carol Erickson, an Alexandria Senior Center board member, first began calling the 15 seniors on her list, everybody seemed fairly upbeat. But the tone has shifted.

Virginia Benson (Contributed)

Some of Douglas County’s elders have barely left their homes in months.

Some are getting together in small groups to play cards.

Some are spending their alone time cooking, reading and quilting.

In their 70s, 80s and 90s, they are in the age groups most relentlessly felled by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have lost spouses and live alone, and since the pandemic began, Alexandria Senior Center volunteers have been calling them regularly, to see how they’re doing. They say they have found a strong sense of resilience among them, as well as a feeling of weariness as the weeks of sheltering at home continue.

When Carol Erickson, a Senior Center board member, first began calling the 15 seniors on her list, everybody seemed fairly upbeat. But the tone has shifted.


“It’s getting a bit long,” she said. “Seniors have a hard time already. We have empty nests, we have retired from our business, we have friends and relatives that have passed on, so there are many negative things in our lives. You add this COVID-19, and it’s tough. It’s emotionally tough and I can sense it.”

Sometimes their own families are pressuring them to stay home; Erickson, 79, said she thinks those children should lighten up.

“Some of them said, 'My family will not let me leave my home,'” she said. “'They bring food to me.' Their kids are enforcing them like a lockdown. It’s not good; however I will say this, they feel loved by their family. They know that’s just a form of caring for them.”

Some tell her that their younger neighbors are ignoring social distancing guidelines, having get-togethers that they can see and hear, and that sharpens their own sense of isolation.

The senior center had provided an outlet for many retirees locally. They could go there to play cards, listen to music, dance, eat a meal and volunteer. But it closed, and even as churches and businesses reopen, the senior center remains shuttered and elders say they are still reluctant to go out.

Gwen Flynn used to greet people when they entered the senior center. Now she has a list of 10 people to call.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing because it’s fun to visit with them,” she said. “I think some of them are getting very antsy. We’re all social animals and we need each other. They stressed that a number of times. We’re looking forward to this all being over and we can leave our apartment.”

Still, two of the 10 expressed deep concerns about the virus.


“They’ve all heard horror stories about the deaths and how agonizing it is and they’d share that,” she said. “It’s a terrible way of dying, is how they put it.”

The volunteers reported hearing varying needs from those they call.

Carol Strong, once the center’s interim director, said the group she is calling are all friends that she missed from the center. Some were sharing old recipes. Others were sewing masks and gardening. They told her that family, friends and neighbors are helping them out and that their physical needs were minimal.

“They’re just missing the people,” she said. “We are blessed in our community with connectedness.”

The senior center isn’t the only organization reaching out to its members.

Grand Arbor is also calling its residents daily to make sure they have everything they need, said Virginia Benson, who used to manage the hospital gift shop and who rents an apartment there.

Benson said she has left the building once since March 18, and that was when her daughter drove her to the cemetery. Her husband died two years ago. She has chosen to stay put because she doesn’t want to unwittingly spread the virus, she said.

Although residents are not allowed to congregate, neighbors in the apartment are reaching out to each other in other ways.


“The other day a gal rang the doorbell and said how would you like a piece of rhubarb cake,” Benson said. Others have brought over brownies and other treats. Grocery stores deliver her food, and Grand Arbor delivers breakfasts and other meals, if she wishes.

Benson has macular degeneration and can’t drive, but she has library books, a Kindle, and music.

“I just thank the Lord, I have contentment and I’m not frustrated and climbing walls,” she said.

She lives on the third floor with a balcony with geraniums and tomato plants. On Mother’s Day, her phone rang. It was one of her children, asking her about the weather. She went out onto the balcony to check and there were her children and grandchildren three stories below on the lawn, calling “Happy Mother’s Day!” up to her.

Benson said her heart goes out to those who have lost jobs and wonder how they’ll feed their families. She said she accepts her situation, and recalled a piece of advice from her own mother.

“Honey, get used to changes,” her mother told her. “If you don’t accept changes when you’re young, you’ll become a bitter old woman.”

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