A Winter's Tale: Helping Seniors Weather the Cold
By Laura Hahn, January 23, 2013 09:00 AM
There's a woman who sits in the square outside my office. Her name is Anna, and she's 92. Her caregiver Magda wheels her there, just a couple blocks from her apartment, so she can feed the birds. Or, as Anna, a lifelong New Yorker, says, "the boyds."
Seeing Anna in the square is like seeing my friend Arthur at the theater. It's her happy place. She could spend hours there, watching the boyds fly up to the rooftops and down to the pavement; up to the light posts and down to the sidewalk. A neighbor friend Ellie often stops by to talk, which makes me pause and smile when I see them together. Ellen is my mom's name, and Anna was my great grandmother's.
Ellie and the boyds and I are not the only ones who say hi to Anna, I'm sure. There must be others who make up her world, in big ways and small, as there are others in mine. New York City turns into a village like that, full of familiar faces and personalities you come to love, especially when the weather is warm and people are outside.
But during the winter, I see a lot less of Anna, and I bet the others do, too. As I pass her spot in the square, I wonder how she's doing, who she's seeing, where she's spending her hours. I'm thankful she has Magda's company and care, but knowing she loves the outdoors, I imagine she feels cooped up if she's spending most days in her apartment.
Isolation can be a scary reality for older adults like Anna, particularly when the temperature drops. In the final years of his life, my Pop Pop used to dread Pennsylvania winters, knowing outings to restaurants and visits with friends would "all depend on the weather," as he'd say with a groan. The cold, the gusts, the snow, whether it was a blanket or a dusting, could keep him inside for days. And when he was still well enough to live at home, he was inside and, for hours at a time, all alone.
Fortunately, there are ways to help.
- Reach out to your family and friends. Relatives, of course, but also neighbors, congregation members or former coworkers you think might be experiencing the season by themselves. Call them, email them, knock on their doors. A quick check-in can go a long way.
- Participate in a friendly visiting program, like the one at DOROT that connected me to Arthur almost four years ago. It's a simple concept, offering company to a senior, but it's rewarding for everyone involved. Plus, you become their eyes and ears if health issues arise.
- Volunteer with organizations that home-deliver meals, like Meals on Wheels, and you will do so much more than serve food. In fact, researchers at Brown University discovered that states investing in meal-delivery programs have fewer "low-care" residents in nursing homes. In other words, folks who truly need nursing-home care still get it, but healthier, more mobile people live at home or in assisted living communities, thanks to regular contact via home-delivered meals.
- Connect older adults with services they need using the Eldercare Locator (1-800-677-1116), brought into being by the U.S. Administration on Aging. Callers are put in touch with their Area Agency on Aging, whose staffers know all kinds of local programs (senior centers, transportation services) available for seniors. Some AAAs even have volunteers who call and check in on homebound seniors living alone.
Sadly, I don't have Anna's phone number. I don't even know where she lives. But seeing her empty space in the square reminds me of all of the Annas I need to check in with this winter: Arthur, of course, but also some of Pop Pop's friends, especially those living through that same Pennsylvania winter he loathed. The square without Anna also makes me think, "If only I had a magic wand, and could fly her south to be with the boyds..." I suppose I'll have to settle with just being a good neighbor and friend. And, hey, there's some magic in that.