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In-depth: How social isolation impacted older adults in the Tampa Bay area

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Posted at 2:58 PM, Dec 20, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — It’s the holiday season and for many, that means families getting together to celebrate. But last year, COVID-19 made those celebrations risky, leaving many people, especially seniors, alone. 

In-depth reporter Anthony Hill is sharing new data that shows how social isolation affected older adults in the Tampa Bay area during the pandemic, and what you can do to help a senior neighbor or friend over the holidays. 

It’s no secret, humans are social creatures. Since the beginning of time, we have congregated to create communities and societies and the holidays remind us of just how social we are as people prepare to celebrate with friends and family.

However, when the global pandemic struck, it forced most of us into isolation and the community that was most affected was older adults. The negative health effects of isolation and loneliness are considered to be worse than obesity and the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Ron Widmaier is very social, he comes to the Sunshine Senior Center in St. Petersburg every day, but he says he felt lonely during the pandemic.

“It was tough. I mean, there was no place to go. There were no social things going on. There were no movies to go to,” said Widmaier.

For Carla Sajda, her sister was her saving grace.

“My sister came to visit me from New Jersey and she wasn’t able to fly back. So, she stayed and it turned out that we were a great team,” said Sajda.

“This whole thing with this pandemic really tested my faith. It really did. Not only in the world, but in myself,” said Antoinette Instone.

Instone said she had a hard time coming to grips with the isolation that came along with the pandemic.

“To have nobody to talk to. You know, and just look at the four walls and it’s like what am I doing," said Instone.

AARP Foundation created a first-of-its-kind tool that maps older adults’ risk of facing social isolation.

“The mapping tool is a composite score that was developed that really looks at factors such as how many of the residents are older adults who are living on their own, for example," said Lisa Marsh Ryerson, President of AARP Foundation.

They found that seniors living in Pinellas County had a 77.7% chance of being socially isolated. Seniors in Pasco County had a 62.8% chance and those in Hernando had a 76.7% chance.

Sally Marvin is with the Sunshine Senior Center in St. Petersburg. She said they had to close their doors for seven months during the pandemic. During that time, they made about 750 phone calls to their seniors every week just to check in. However, she said once they reopened last October, they noticed a significant decline in the mental health and cognitive functioning of their senior citizens.

“With the pandemic, it made it twice as hard for them to understand what was happening in their minds and what was happening to their bodies when they just stayed at home and watched TV. It isn’t the same as coming out, meeting your friends and, you know, being among your peers,” said Marvin.

As for Carla, Ron and Antoinette, they are just happy to be able to socialize in person, once again, especially during the holiday season.

“You know, you walk in the door and it’s like ‘good morning, Ron!’ So, that means a lot,” said Widmaier.

AARP Foundation suggests you check in on senior citizens in your community and let them know that they can count on you. Also, you can teach them how to leverage video calling technology to stay connected with friends and family.

If you know an older person who is feeling alone and needing help, you can call the Florida Department of Elder Affairs Helpline. 1-800-963-5337