PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The pandemic is taking an emotional toll on the region's senior population, one that's likely to increase as the holiday season approaches.
"Outside it's the day before the election, it's the week after Halloween, and the pandemic is in full effect and it seems to be growing, in fact it looks like its going to be spreading more and more and more into next year," behavioral health clinician Will Turner said on the recent "Berkshire Senior Television
" episode. "Which means that the holidays are going to be affected by what happens with the pandemic, and that means that our seniors are going to be in their homes isolated not able to be with their families like they usually do. "
On the special edition of the Pittsfield Community Television show, Elder Services of Berkshire County's caregiver coordinator Joseph Choon outlined a Holiday Elder Care 2020 Project to encourage county residents to reach out to elders this holiday season.
Joining him was Turner, who spoke about the increased emotional toll that this holiday season will put on senior citizens and the importance of making sure they do not feel lonely or forgotten.
During the holidays, many older residents feel lonely and are reminded of people they lost in the past, he said. Between that and the lack of family get-togethers, inability to get around, and feeling of not fully participating, they can suffer from depression, loneliness, and isolation.
Families may also have to drive from far distances to be together and it may be the only time they can be with children and grandchildren and participate in family traditions.
"They break bread and spend wonderful and important time together, and it's the time when elders often get filled up for the whole year, it's that one day that fills them for the whole year," Turner said.
Because of the novel coronavirus, the holidays will be different this year. It will be challenging everyone, but especially senior citizens, Turner said. For seniors who are already somewhat isolated because of physical disabilities or not being able to drive, the threat of COVID-19 is isolating them even further.
"This holiday will be the most challenging in that elders will say they are going to be fine but it's important to know they will be having a tough time," Turner said. "Whether they celebrate Hanukkah, Kwanza, Thanksgiving or any other holiday. "
Turner said people were making a great effort to reach out to friends and family to check on them at the beginning of the pandemic but now at eight months in, people are getting used to the isolation and reaching out less.
"It's time to reach out again because this is going to be an especially difficult time for all of us," Turner said.
Reaching out can include a phone call, a handwritten letter, a drawing, a card, or a Zoom call. The cost of this is free or minimal, and has been proven make an impact on seniors' happiness.
Choon said to consider reaching out to strangers as well as relatives. He cited the time that he had surgery and his neighbors came over with a snowblower to clear his walkways, which was a way of showing support without words.
An Elder Services committee has reached out to school superintendents asking them to encourage students to write letters to senior, host Zoom meetings so students can sing to them, or any other creative way that they can reach out.
"Not only would the elders love it, but the kids and teachers, it would feel good all around," Turner said.
Pen pal programs are beneficial to elders because they don't involve technology that they may be uncomfortable with and gives them a physical relic to hold on to. Turner said when seniors get to their mailbox and see a card made by children or a handwritten letter they are filled with happiness.
The committee has also contacted nursing homes asking if there are residents who would like to receive mail and are inviting teachers to adopt a nursing home with their students. Local parishes are being encouraged to think about a contact tree instead of a giving tree.
"If I was sitting in a nursing home in my chair and all of a sudden I got a bunch of letters addressed to me saying all of these good wishes, I would feel fantastic," Turner said.
One suggestion was that a person could write a letter or make a phone call on each of the 12 Days of Christmas. Choon said could be as simple as asking "how are you today?" and would give both parties something to look forward to every day.
"If you send a note, or card or a letter, to an elder or if you call them it is going to be a memory that lasts forever," Turner said. "They are going to be telling that story about the Christmas or the Thanksgiving that they got all these notes and they're going to be telling them for the rest of their lives."
Community members who are interested in participating can email Turner at firstname.lastname@example.org
and he will send a list of participating nursing homes and assisted living facilities.