As most of the state — minus Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm-Beach Counties — starts to reopen Monday, visiting senior living centers and longterm care facilities is still off-limits. And seniors on their own are still being “strongly encouraged” by the state to stay home.
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For 20 years now, 2-1-1 Broward's Senior Touchline program has been checking on seniors who live alone with daily phone calls. They connect them with community resources if they need them. And many do. More than 437,800 people age 60 and older live in Broward County. More than 98,450 live by themselves here, according to the most recent report from the State Dept. of Elder Affairs.
WLRN spoke with one of the people making those calls, Tracy J. Schuldiner, the Chief Advancement and Community Relations Officer for 2-1-1 Broward.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, more callers at 2-1-1 Broward are hearing that seniors understand why they have to remain isolated, but are really frustrated as they spend this extended time separated from the outside world.
Schuldiner said, the agency is also noticing an uptick in seniors struggling with food insecurity as many are fearful of going to stores like Publix.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity:
WLRN: You've been a resource in the community for a long time — two decades. What's different about reaching seniors now during this COVID-19 outbreak?
TRACY J. SCHULDINER: During this time of the pandemic, we are finding that our seniors are feeling a little bit more isolated and a little bit more lonely. So they are even more grateful and surprised that we are continuing on with our touchline daily reassurance calls.
What are some things that you're hearing people tell you that they need right now?
We have some seniors just wanting basic information about COVID-19. What are the alerts that are out now? We have some seniors that do tend to watch too much of the news, so we encourage them to not do that, to take a break, maybe watch a movie, maybe go for a walk. We have some seniors asking for food. They don't have any way to get food, so or for their medication. So we then transfer them over to a 24-hour helpline counselor that we have. Really, it's just about decreasing anxiety levels and decreasing isolation and loneliness for them.
You are able to connect these seniors to community resources, if you're hearing that they need something?
Correct. That's one of the great things about Touchline is that we are having conversations. Some of the seniors say thank you for calling. I'll talk to you tomorrow. And then other seniors, they do like to talk, especially now. Our calls are taking a longer amount of time: and some of them are good natured, some of them are worried, and some of them need more resources. And that's what we're here for. We have over 1,000 nonprofits in our database and 4,000 services in our database. So we would connect them with resources. Meals on Wheels seems to be a popular one right now. So we would talk to them, find out where they're located, what their needs are, and we would match them up with something that fits them.
What challenges are people sharing with you?
Honestly, they're just really frustrated that they can't hang out with their friends if you want to know the truth. One person had their health aide say that they can't come in and assist them any longer. So they're trying to work something out with their family and another health aide establishment. So we try to guide them through that.
Senior isolation has been an issue in Broward County before the outbreak of COVID-19. And I just wonder, how does this virus exacerbate challenges for people who live alone?
Well, it does exasperate it, because they are really alone. They can't leave — there isn't that hope of having that interaction because they just can't have it. And so, we try to ease their fears and tell them, if you feel symptoms, please do not hesitate to dial 9-1-1. We just try to tell them that we're there for them. And please, anytime after our daily call, dial 954 - 640 - 5800 to speak with a helpline counselor any time, even if they're just stressed out or they're feeling emotional or lonely. We're there for them 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
I'd really love to know if you've heard any moments of joy since this all started?
Actually, yes, they're very inspiring. I call and say, 'Hi, my name is Tracy. I'm with the Touchline program. How are you today?' And they say, 'I'm marvelous. How are you?' And they just say, you know, 'we're gonna get through this. It's gonna be fine. I've been through worse. At least we have air conditioning and the TV,' and very upbeat and positive. Some of them are going out for walks. Some of them make their daily ritual sitting on the patio and reading. They've been a source of inspiration for myself.
Sherrilyn Cabrera contributed to this report.