Older residents whose feelings of isolation due to COVID-19 are worsened by the holiday season are hearing from not-so-secret Santas like Ken Berg and Sue Bohnsack.
These two and others like them are reaching out to hundreds of folks age 55 and older who, in a normal year, would gather for Eden Prairie Senior Center programs like the annual holiday lunch, a catered affair with lots of socializing and performances by high school choir students.
The face-to-face conversations have been replaced with Zoom meetings, e-mails, phone calls, videos, and more as Berg, Bohnsack, and others get to the heart of the matter: Are you doing OK? Are you connecting with friends and family? Is there any way we can help?
“I remind them there are other people feeling the same way, and suggest they be the ones to reach out to others,” said Bohnsack, a City of Eden Prairie recreation supervisor and certified therapeutic recreation specialist who directs the Senior Center. The center was closed March 13 to conform to the state’s COVID-19 restrictions.
“It is isolating,” she added. “They were willing to cope for a time. But never anticipated it would be this long.”
Using a master list of 2,000 e-mail addresses, a list of 900 mailing addresses, and a roster of about 100 seniors who don’t have e-mail access, Bohnsack and her staff are sending newsletters and making calls to break up those residents’ social isolation.
Seven seniors attended a revival of the center’s book club last week on Zoom, and a group that discusses finances has also pivoted to online meetings. Coming soon, Bohnsack said, are a Zoom “Coffee with the Cops” program, new discussion groups, and links to virtual travel and nutrition classes.
A program early in the pandemic that provided and paid for groceries needed by six or seven older adults – initiated with help from the Police Department and Assembly of God church – was eventually replaced by help from social-service agencies but has started up again as the need persists.
Ken Berg, 86, and a member of the Eden Prairie Senior Center’s advisory council, has taken things up a notch with the help of his wife, Susan, who has better computer skills. He’s begun pushing out e-mail messages almost daily to the group of men called Woodchucks who used to meet together on Fridays to talk about cars, engines, and more, as well as a mixed Monday Morning Group that focused on current events when the Senior Center was open.
About two months ago, he opened a group meeting by asking if anyone was feeling blue because of the isolation brought on by the pandemic and its restrictions on gathering. Everyone said yes. Some have lost loved ones to COVID-19. “And I’m not hearing from a couple people,” he said, adding he felt this is worrisome.
Those concerns are shared. The nonprofit Senior Community Services helps a lot of older adults in Eden Prairie and other areas who are trying to remain independent in the single-family homes they lived in for years. Gary Spears, a 22-year Eden Prairie resident and coordinator for SCS’s Household Outdoor Maintenance for Elderly (HOME) program, worries most about those who are not only missing family and friends, but also have financial worries.
He drives past the Senior Center almost every day, and seeing it closed “depresses me,” he said. His best advice for older adults feeling isolated is to use Zoom and whatever alternate technology is available, “because that’s all we’ve got right now.”
He helped launch a “Seniors Get Social” class at the Senior Center last winter, before the pandemic set in. The class improved seniors’ technology skills by pairing them with students, and Spears hopes it has helped a few of those class members bridge the distance between them and their loved ones.
Meanwhile, Berg’s routine is to float an e-mail topic – one day, he shared aerial photos of famous cities and invited people to share their travel experiences – and see what sticks. “As I get feedback, I know who likes what,” he said. “We’re all finding things like that, that we share with each other.”
Ken had a career in sales, so he knows how to deal with people. His current reach is about 50 people.
“You have to enjoy it or you wouldn’t do it very long,” he said. “People need to have contact. Keeping that up is what I’m seeing happen.
“Hopefully, I can bring a little bit of humor to the world.”