On a typical hot, summer Monday, I spend a few hours driving the rural roads of a small corner of Franklin County, delivering a week's worth of food from the Agency on Aging to a dozen and a half elderly and disabled people.
Some of these people would have gathered for a noontime meal at one of the senior centers dotting the county, but the coronavirus pandemic shut down the centers months ago. So, they're on my list for delivery. Instead of getting to talk with friends over a daily meal, they get me, once a week for a few minutes.
I realize they're probably safer from the pandemic than most people in their at-risk group because of their isolation, which is a fact of life among the rural elderly. They rarely see visitors or go out. If there's one thing they understand, it's social isolation.
But they deserve better than our benign neglect. Their number is substantial and growing. The elderly make up about 19 percent of the rural population, compared to 15 percent in urban areas, according to the U.S. Census. The rural elderly are isolated due to lack of transportation, public services, or health care, plus distance from family. The coronavirus seems to have created a greater justification for ignoring them—they're better off alone.
We provide minimal services—food to eat alone—but not inclusion in the mainstream of life. Yet these are smart, engaging people, part of our communities, which they had a hand in building. They've seen and know things, but they know better than to assume we're interested.
My food delivery stops include retirement villages, a few tucked-away trailers, older homes converted to apartments, and modest ranchers ranging from dilapidated to well-kept. Outdoor ornamentation ranges from a batch of scruffy kittens on one porch, to flowers dead or thriving, wooden welcome signs, a few political signs, assorted junk, and lawn decorations.
I have to give people time to get to the door, but when someone is particularly slow in coming, I worry about whether they're OK, or whether I should call the contact number for the friend or relative listed on my delivery sheet. I don't want to lean on the bell and cause them to rush and fall.
People answer the door on these hot days clad in the coolest or most comfortable clothing they have, which may be pajamas. Most people want to chat for a moment, a few for more than a moment (but a moment is all I have because I can't leave the other meals sitting in the hot car).
Sometimes people ask me to bring the boxes of food into the kitchen or to put them directly into the refrigerator, which often is otherwise empty. Sometimes I bring in their mail if the mailbox is far from the front door and they want me to bring it to them.
They're ready with wry observations, comments on the day, and occasionally a story. A few say very little although they're polite. When I say "good morning," two of them always ask me in all seriousness, "Is it a good morning?" and I feel a need to explain why I presumed that it was. Another usually asks, "Is this ever going to be over?" meaning either the coronavirus or the unrest. They show me things they've made or projects they're working on (like painting a doorframe).
These hidden elderly are as much a casualty of the pandemic as anyone—as children, nursing home residents, laid-off people or young people facing uncertain futures. University of Chicago researchers found that a third of those 70 and older are lonelier than usual because of the pandemic. Loneliness is linked to dementia, depression, anxiety, heart conditions, and premature death. Research suggests social isolation is more damaging than obesity and comparable to the effects of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
It's not just to their detriment but also ours—we lose out on their friendship, humor, experience and, most of all, equanimity. I always feel uplifted after my rounds. They're a worn thread in our social fabric, but they help hold it together just the same.
If the pandemic brings more attention to loneliness because it's affecting a wider range of people due to the constraints on socializing (suddenly, everyone is susceptible to loneliness), something good will have come of it. If loneliness is encouraging people to engage for a moment with those they encounter because they appreciate these small interactions more, so much the better.
But our own feelings of loneliness and isolation should also wake us up to fact that we need to start including elderly and disabled people in our community life. If isolation feels wrong and "not normal" for us, why should we continue to accept it as normal for older people?
Becky Bennett lives in south-central Pennsylvania and is a freelance writer and editor. She was editor of the Public Opinion newspaper in Chambersburg for 18 years. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.