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Pandemic Stress

The unraveling of status quo started a few months ago. What was deemed “manageable” by many older people confined at home, has begun to fray. Social isolation is taking a toll. Without witnesses and social support, strokes are undetected, forgetfulness progresses into full blown dementia and fear has moved into full paranoia that anyone could cause an illness or even death.

In the beginning, when Share the Care talked to people about how they were doing in the pandemic, most pointed to their food supplies and told us they were doing “fine.”

But, now, nine months later … that “fine” has taken another turn. The “fine” might now mean that instead of making dinner, they’re drinking an Ensure. Or, they’ve fallen and even though a face is torn and bruised, it doesn’t merit a trip to the emergency room or even doctor’s office. Or, watching TV all day is the only conversation heard, or believed to be true. Curtains and shades are shut all day. And, trips to the bank, grocery store or church, have stopped altogether. As the number of COVID cases continue to mount throughout the country, the toll we are paying with our humanity and lack of the ability to care and comfort each other is a huge tear in our fabric of compassion for each other.

The goal now is to stay out of hospitals and nursing homes. Or, if there is no choice, to be able to discharge home as soon as possible.

Doctors are increasingly reliant on telehealth for diagnosis. Or, just order bloodwork and read the labs. But the problem is older people who are often forgetful and not able to tell an accurate story about their conditions, are being increasingly abandoned by a health care system that has moved into a technological future unavailable to many of them.

A woman going blind with macular degeneration calls me asking if I can help her legally kill herself. In her 90’s, she cannot bear the thought of no longer being able to read. Already having lost most of her hearing, and physical bearing, the loss of eyesight is the last straw. She asks to die, because no one has offered hope. Share the Care hooks her up to the Earl Baum Center in Santa Rosa, where she learns about glasses and other devices that can help with her vision. It’s reading that she misses the most, and we find her a reader who will visit several times a week and read, out loud, from a favorite book. Talk of suicide has stopped. She has found a little of what she was looking for, care and hope.

Without human connection, depression can only deepen. One man tells me there’s nothing to do all day but watch TV. He’s bored. His body aches, walking is difficult. He asks me over and over, “What am I to do all day? There’s nothing.” He drives to Safeway, just to see some people. A diabetic, he pays no heed to doctor’s orders as he eats an apple pie straight out of the aluminum pie pan. His legs, he tells me, hurt so bad that he doesn’t get out of his chair very much. Not even to use the bathroom. His chair is surrounded by open jars of urine. He promises to empty them once I leave. But the truth is, it doesn’t matter to him whether they’re empty or full, whether he’s dressed or in a robe, or what is on the TV sitting just four feet away. His doctor has ordered a pill for depression, but he says he doesn’t really need to take it. He’s sure he’s “okay.”

Exercise is walking to the mailbox, entertainment is a game of solitaire, and today’s meal is delivered in a plastic purple bag from Meals on Wheels. Phones ring, but aren’t answered, “It’s just another marketer,” and no one can remember when they had a moment of recent joy.

This Thanksgiving month, so many of us will be celebrating alone. Families are told not to get together, people are encouraged to depend on screens for touch and we are all trying to protect each other from the disease that has stopped us all in time.

Share the Care can help some, but not enough. We could use more volunteers. More people to be involved. Let us know what you can do. We’ll find you a place to belong. Even when this pandemic is over, life will have been altered for many. Let’s be there for them.