Northern Nevadans work together to help seniors overcome loneliness
Carson City resident Mary Liveratti’s father Edwin Burns lived to be 95. A Marine for 22 years and a teacher, he was a lifelong learner, grabbing an encyclopedia and always engaging in conversation with others at every chance, his daughter recalled.
But in his senior years, becoming confined to his home in Southern California made it difficult to socialize.
“The older he got, he said he didn’t have any friends,” Liveratti said. “At that age, all your friends have died. He said you were in the bonus round.”
Liveratti, living in Carson City, wasn’t physically near to her father toward the end of his life, but she helped introduce him to new friends even as he suffered from macular degeneration.
Liveratti is a guide for the University of Nevada, Reno’s Nevada Ensures Support Together program, an action team consisting of more than 100 volunteers structured in small groups who address social services needs for older Nevadans. Liveratti and a co-leader in Southern Nevada lead a cohort of a few younger volunteers for NEST and coach them with their clients in basic services they can provide on a limited basis.
With Burns as her inspiration to join a program to help elders fight an even larger issue that they or their friends or family might not even know they’re fighting – social isolation – Liveratti says the intergenerational reach between those in need of help and those willing to learn about what they can do has been rewarding.
Recognizing social isolation
While the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc and presented a number of challenges on the general population, local health services went to work protecting the population’s elderly and most vulnerable from its impacts. But its social side effects – creating fear and concern and a situation in which residents became ill or quarantined – silently became as deadly as the physical for many older adults.
Meals on Wheels America and Caesars Foundation recently hosted a National Social Isolation Virtual Summit offering findings from experts across the nation who have identified seniors’ most critical needs impacting their quality of life. Meals on Wheels supports more than 5,000 community programs with 2 million staff members, volunteers and advocates. Carson City’s Senior Center has integrated its services for years to assist anyone on a short-term basis or those with more critical needs.
Social isolation, or the state of objectively being alone and having few relationships, already was prevalent before the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 pandemic on March 11 this year, according to Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University.
Holt-Lunstad, keynote speaker of the summit in June, shared before March, approximately 200 million U.S. seniors were homebound or rarely leaving home. One in three adults 45 and older expressed they were lonely, and about 5 million more in the same range had become lonely since 2010. Approximately 46 percent of adults surveyed in an American Association of Retired Persons study in 2018 considered themselves lonely, and that went up to 61 percent before the pandemic.
Holt-Lunstad’s research shows that among more than 3.4 million seniors, loneliness can increase the risk for seniors’ earlier death by 26 percent, while being socially connected increased their chances for survival by 50 percent.
There was evidence of cognitive health outcomes, she added, and this had an impact on economic outcomes. The chances of social isolation grow, according to the AARP. There is also an added $6.7 billion in Medicare spending each year given to inpatient care costs and the need for increased nursing home spending.
“The immediate threat of the virus and the pandemic have been prioritized, but it’s important to recognize there may be threats that we need to take into account,” she said.
Social isolation, she emphasized, isn’t about “feeling miserable.” The human body responds physiologically and biologically to normal drives to the need to reconnect with others for friendship as it does to the need for food or water when it hungers or thirsts. This is why it’s important to help seniors and those with preexisting health conditions or chronic illnesses to maintain physical relationships.
Other experts shared challenges they’re hosting, data they’ve collected and insights gained in their studies on the dangers of senior social isolation and what can be done to address it. Nationally, they hope others will become interested in helping loved ones or even those they don’t know to stay safe or to befriend them and volunteer as much as they can.
In Nevada, efforts all around are percolating to help with the growing problem, and the young and old are getting involved.
A NEST to build
In Northern Nevada, for Liveratti, the experience of mentoring UNR students or others in that college-age range is wonderful as a retired woman who formerly worked in social services. To her, it was a valuable opportunity to pass on her knowledge and help others who might be pursuing medical careers working with senior adults in some capacity, especially for those who might be battling social isolation.
“They (NEST) wanted some people who are more seasoned,” Liveratti said. “We love it because it’s intergenerational.”
Jennifer Carson, University of Nevada, Reno’s director of the Dementia Engagement, Education and Research (DEER) program in the School of Community Health Sciences, works with the School of Medicine’s Sanford Center for Aging and a number of geriatrics initiatives and partners in gerontology to explore how to improve the quality of life for seniors.
Carson said as COVID-19 became a concern in March for the general population, the pandemic became increasingly troublesome at 23 times the pace for adults 65 and older. The question turned into how Nevadans could meet essential needs for seniors without putting them at more risk having them to leave their homes.
So she and her husband Peter Reed launched Nevada CAN, the Nevada COVID-19 Aging Network Rapid Response Plan. She also worked with Nevada Aging and Disability Services Division director Dena Schmidt in Carson City and Nevada Senior Services co-director Jeff Klein in Las Vegas to mobilize a number of resources from the state and county levels to serve the state’s senior communities.
Carson said Nevada CAN would focus on three major components: daily needs, telehealth or medical needs and social isolation, Carson said.
“We wanted them to have a simple way to get the help they need so they could stay home,” she said.
To access these services, seniors can call 211 or go online to http://www.nevada211.org/seniors-covid19-resources. Once they’ve filled out a request, they become connected with a volunteer guide trained to assist and provide essential support in geriatric services.
Volunteers are able to take on more than five seniors or senior couples at once to ensure each senior is given quality attention. Right now, CAN is up to 97 volunteers.
“I’ve always been a believer in the power of working together,” Carson said. “It’s a shining example of what Nevadans can do when they’re working together. There are no silos. The NEST collaborative is owned by everyone.”
NEST itself, which provides the social component, brings together up to five seniors using technology or through conference calls and incorporates the volunteers from the Nevada System of Higher Education and reinforces the belief that anyone can help each other, Carson said. It also helps to address other critical psychological or physical needs seniors have in addition to any emotional withdrawals they’re experiencing now due to the pandemic, she noted.
“This has been a very significant issue and now we have an effective vehicle for addressing social isolation,” she said.
Volunteers submit to background checks, a two-part training process on identifying elder abuse, how to serve as mandatory reporters of abuse, suicide awareness, cultural competency and dementia, Carson said. They also quickly become in tune with their senior clients’ greatest needs and form relationships quickly.
“They are really great connectors,” Carson said, adding 40 percent of those who are giving their time currently are attending UNR, which is useful to help seniors learn how to navigate basic technology needs.
National efforts to help older Americans, who were among the first to stay at home at the pandemic’s start and would be the last to return as the pandemic dissipates, are being sought out to improve their daily lives. During the National Social Isolation Virtual Summit in June, Edwin Walker, deputy assistant secretary for Aging of the Administration on Aging within the Administration for Community Living, spoke of some options available to seniors and families. These include a prize challenge the ACL recently launched to develop user-friendly technology and resources to help connect seniors based on their needs and interests, with the ACL awarding $750,000 for such online systems. Walker also spoke of other communities developing self-help programs that help improve personal health and reduce loneliness that can be catered to the individual city or neighborhood’s needs.
In Northern Nevada, doors always remain open to help those who need it most.
Courtney Warner, executive director of the Carson City Senior Center, serving 500 seniors daily through its food programs, said its facilities are always ready to serve.
“Being isolated, whether by a physical impairment or condition or due to COVID-19, impacts a seniors’ overall well-being and quality of life,” she said. “The community can help by checking in on their senior neighbors, send a card or special greeting and simply start by a friendly phone call. If you are a senior struggling, the Carson City Senior Center is ready to help you find the best and pandemic-safe program to keep you engaged.”
Liveratti said she enjoys making a difference in her own community and helping those who need it the most.
“What I love about volunteering is you meet all these great people,” she said. “It’s great for me. I feel like I’m helping people here on a million levels.”
As for those who are in training and willing to engage through new tools or training for their careers, she said helping seniors prepares them to develop empathy for a variety of career paths.
“We have a couple of med students, which I think is fantastic having young people in their 20s,” she said. “I think it’s going to make their experience so much richer for their patients.”