Statistics exist on the number of elders who are homeless, and how many might be mentally ill or drug addicted, but it might be a bit harder to find statistics on the effects of social isolation. What seems rare is to hear directly from those enduring this condition and how those in the aging services network offered them a way toward reconnection. Aging Today spoke with three older adults who talked about life on the fringe, and about how giving back helps them to hang on.
Gabriel Delgado, age 69
“Isolation, what does it mean to me? I have to look it up, and refresh my memory. I’m 69 years old. My memory is starting to go. But I sure know what it [isolation] feels like.
Unless I take one of my happy pills, then everything around me looks gloomy. Just another day. No one to talk to, or you miss someone to just be there next to you to talk. Perhaps to reminisce, share a cookie or a cup of coffee.
Fear also steps in, and I think fear and isolation go hand in hand, because that is what I feel sometimes. I can’t walk as fast or defend myself, my reflexes aren’t as quick as they used to be, and I have some medical issues—so I stay home. Sometimes I would like to be out there in the world doing all the things I used to do, but I can’t. I’ve never been much of a person to call people for support; and it’s very hard to change.
So I volunteer during the day at Lavender Seniors (part of Bay Area Community Services). And I make myself reach out to people, and realize that there are many others like myself.
We have lost many of our good old-time friends to the AIDS epidemic, and the few of us that are left behind find it very hard to start new friendships. So much time has gone by, and how do I make those close friendships I cultivated at the ages of 20 and 30, and kept for years? How can I re-create it again when there’s not too many years left?”
Anxiety, Apprehension, Depression
Chuck R. Cook, age 66
“For many years, I had a history of mental illness, and recovered through a lot of caring people. I wasn’t too gung-ho about lots of adult day centers, sometimes it was just another doggone therapy that benefits some and not others. People in those places are non-reachable. I lived in and out of board-and-care homes.
Finally I ended up in Hedco House in Hayward. I was referred there, had been going to another place by shuttle bus, and I dreaded getting up each morning, was very depressed, didn’t want to go, didn’t care if I lived or not. It was hard seeing non-reachable people, people freaking out. The only thing I enjoyed were the exercises and taking walks, and the lunches were nice.
At Hedco House I met program director Grace Oakes and the whole staff and after a little while fell in love with the place. The people were more caring, they would listen, they weren’t short with me. I’m good at landscaping, so I got involved with that. Now I clean up the yard and sidewalks—that’s what I needed—something to give me structure.
It’s been over two years since I had a severe anxiety attack. I got married, for three years now—my prayers have been answered. My story is that I kept seeing my psychiatrist and getting my meds lowered.
I’ve changed. I’ve been working on becoming a peer specialist, a peer counselor. And today I sent for this DVD to learn how to type and to use the computer.”
Rose Burke, age 51
San Francisco, Calif.
Rose Burke had been homeless, with an addiction problem, and living on the streets. She says “her moment of clarity” came “when I was out of drugs and money and I started seeing the people around me for who they really were. I started to put my foot down. I was very vulnerable. The only thing that really mattered was my children. I tried to keep them away from it all, but then it started to get too close to home.”
It will be 18 years this June since Burke had that moment of clarity and turned her life around. These days you can find her volunteering at San Francisco’s Hosanna Celebration Center (a food pantry). Each week, she checks people in at the start of the pantry line where they receive free groceries provided by the San Francisco Food Bank.
“I love being here. I can relate to these people. I’ve been in this position myself,” she says. Rose relies on the food pantry for assistance, too. And she is looking for a job. At age 51, after 12 years of school, she finished her degree to become a preschool teacher.
“I’m so grateful for what I have, and there are so many healthy options at the food pantry. I’m still working to rebuild my life, working on my well-being: mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually.”
Editor’s Note: This article appears in the May/June, 2012, issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy nationwide. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store.
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