More than any other demographic group, senior citizens have been hit hardest by the pandemic, being the most vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus and recording the most hospitalizations and deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 8 of 10 deaths from COVID were people 65 and older.
Adding to the pain and death the pandemic has brought to seniors are psychological and social effects that for many have produced emotional misery and turmoil through isolation that closed outlets to communal life. Many, but not all.
Dr. Ellen Whyte, the director of geriatric psychiatry outpatient services for University of Pittsburgh’s Western Psychiatric Hospital, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that although the issue is real for seniors’ well-being, it’s a mistake to generalize about any group.
“The elderly as a group is very diverse,” Dr. Whyte said. “Those with more education and resources will come through this social distancing just fine, while those who don’t have the ability to engage in tech-supported replacements, for example, may feel particularly isolated.”
On Shelter Island, the senior population has had those resources. They’ve been “remarkably resilient,” according to town Senior Services Director Laurie Fanelli, through the hardships imposed by COVID. In conversations with several Islanders, Ms. Fanelli’s analysis seems true.
Former Deputy Supervisor Chris Lewis, Mollie and Robert Strugats, Nancy Butts and Anita Cicero all said they’ve weathered the pandemic’s storm with grace through the lockdowns, quarantines and isolation. They all credited the social services of the town — especially the Senior Center — as well as the community as a whole, for help and support to battle the pandemic’s effects, which kicked into high gear in late February and early March of 2020.
SHUTTING DOWN, NOT SHUTTING OUT
Ms. Fanelli said the nearly 15-month shutdown of in-person activities at the Senior Center is ending. One example was that she was called to the phone in the middle of sweeping away rain puddles outside the Center for a yoga class. Mah Jong, water coloring sessions, and knitting, just to name a few, were all back on the schedule for in-person enjoyment, she said.
According to a study published by Britain’s Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, “The effect [of loneliness or isolation] is greater than that of other well-established risk factors for mortality, such as physical inactivity and obesity, and comparable with cigarette smoking.”
The Senior Center staff has been aware of that and taken steps to ensure Island seniors keep in touch with others, Ms. Fanelli said. Throughout the pandemic — and before — the Center’s “telephone reassurance” was in full operation, where staff members check in on a regular basis with residents who live alone, not only to find out how they’re doing, but just to chat and make a human connection. There are also “door visits,” on people’s porches, and special visits during holidays.
Ms. Fanelli said she’s aware that the pandemic has brought on a sense of “weariness,” and staffers strive to elicit feelings and thoughts among the people they serve, to be good listeners and keep connections alive.
Nancy Butts, who lives alone and doesn’t drive, has regular visits from her daughter, Jackie Minetree. She said the Senior Center had been a great help in providing transportation. “I had to have a root canal in Southampton,” Ms. Butts said. “I called the Center and they were right here to drive me.” She added that the root canal was a lengthy process “but they waited for me to finish.”
She was vaccinated at a CVS in West Sayville, driven there by her daughter. “She was obsessed. Kept saying, ‘Come on, Mom, we have to do this,’” Ms. Butts said.
One casualty to her daily schedule was her job at Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons. An Island friend, who also works there, would drive her back and forth. “But with the pandemic, I had to stay home, and it looks like I won’t be going back,” she said.
Her plan now that restrictions have been lifted is “grocery shopping,” she said. “I never thought I’d be so happy to go grocery shopping.”
Chris Lewis counts herself lucky to live with her son and daughter-in-law, adding that she had extra good fortune to live on Shelter Island. “But I’ve been distressed by some people’s attitudes, especially some disillusioned, disgruntled letters to the editor about the school,” Ms. Lewis said. “If you’re lucky to live here during a pandemic, you’re lucky enough.”
The former Town councilwoman and deputy supervisor is enjoying her retirement, she said, and although she’s had some health issues, has survived the lockdown with minimal trouble. “I mostly entertain the dogs when my son and daughter-in-law go to work,” she said.
But she’s still engaged, and as president of the Senior Citizens Foundation of Shelter Island, she’s worked to bring senior issues before the Town Board and residents. She recently shepherded a move to acquire a new bus for senior transportation. The bus is needed for seniors unable to drive or arrange their own rides to doctors’ appointments, as well as to afford the growing senior population on the Island the ability to attend special events on- and off-Island.
Overall, the Town had responded extremely well to the crisis, Ms. Lewis said, with transparency and outreach, and businesses, including the IGA and restaurants, have stepped up to make life safer.
Ms. Lewis said Mothers’ Day was special because of a visit from her daughter, Elizabeth, whom she hadn’t seen in months. “It was a wonderful day.” She’s looking forward to meeting in-person a group of women friends she’s been part of for 20 years. They’ve stayed in touch by phone and once or twice when the weather was warm outside, but it will be good to get back to visits at home, she said.
Mollie Strugats has missed her yoga classes and seeing friends and family, but she and her husband, Robert have stayed safe and content, she said. “I’m the chief cook and bottlewasher,” Ms. Strugats said. “Literally, I’m cooking and cleaning and doing laundry and yelling at Robert because sometimes he’s not so tidy,” she said with a laugh. “I feel I’ve paid my dues for a day when I’m finished.”
They’re both fully vaccinated. “The Senior Center called and said there were openings at Peconic Landing so we went right over,” she said.
At a recent doctor’s visit, Mr. Strugats was asked how he accounted for living into his 90s. “I told him it was easy,” the World War II combat veteran said. “Keep breathing.”
He’s looking forward to receiving physical therapy at the FIT Center to help with his mobility, and remembering Memorial Day with other Island veterans to honor their fallen comrades.
Anita Cicero said she and her husband Louis, the Island barber known as “The Clip,” are enjoying their retirement, fully vaccinated and have been venturing out to their favorite Island restaurants. “Keeping all the precautions,” she added.
The town has done excellent work, she said, and singled out the school for having the students in the building for in-person learning. “It was the answer to so many prayers by parents and everyone.”
Ms. Cicero and her husband got both shots at the school, which she described as a great event, and is puzzled by those who have refused offers to be vaccinated. “I don’t know why they don’t get it and have peace of mind,” Ms. Cicero said.