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‘It’s not easy’: For seniors in Baltimore, coronavirus social distancing comes with a side effect: loneliness

Senior housing complexes have restricted visits in an effort to keep people safe during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Bernadette Croaker knows loneliness is taking a toll on her neighbors.

No longer can they gather to enjoy the Wednesday movie nights that Croaker, 76, has hosted for the past eight years in a common room at Catholic Charities’ Owings Mills New Town senior apartments.

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Visits from family and friends have been curtailed at New Town and other senior living places in an effort to lower the possibility of any exposure to the coronavirus pandemic that has infected more than 400,000 across the globe and is most deadly to people over age 65 and the immuno-compromised.

Aside from visits to the doctor and other necessary trips, they mostly stay in their apartments and use reversible smiley-face and frowny-face signs on their doors to let neighbors know how they’re feeling. Lately, Croaker has been trying to cheer folks up, encouraging them to do a “happy dance."

“I know it’s affecting me mentally,” Croaker said. “It’s not easy. A lot of them are very depressed. We try to put a sense of humor in it for each other.”

The social distance prescribed to slow the spread of the global pandemic can be particularly isolating for seniors, many of whom rely on regular visits, errands, religious services and social interaction in their living places for a sense of connection with their loved ones and communities.

Family, friends, neighbors and others in the Baltimore area have been checking on seniors in a variety of ways, including phone calls, emails and running errands for them. Children are using sidewalk chalk to greet their elderly neighbors. And FaceTime, Skype and other video chat services are delighting them by connecting them to their families as they while away the time indoors.

But the need for outreach will only grow the longer the coronavirus forces the elderly, and everyone else, to remain in an unending state of quarantine.

A simple phone call or email can make a big difference to seniors coping with a more challenging sense of isolation than most, said Anita M. Wells, a clinical psychologist and associate professor in Morgan State University’s psychology department.

If you see a funny photo or video as you’re absentmindedly scrolling through your social networks at home, Wells said, consider sending it to them. After all, they’re as bored and desperate for a smile as the rest of us.

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“We have a responsibility — really to ourselves and to our senior citizens — to reach out to them and to say, ‘Hey, I was thinking about you,’ " Wells said.

Patricia Rosenfeld was walking outside to get her newspaper one morning this week when the 79-year-old Baltimore woman noticed a chalk drawing, smiling up at her from the sidewalk.

“Have a happy day, Miss Trish! Love, Evi,” read the cheery note from her 9-year-old neighbor, Evi Vincent, whose father, Eric, had volunteered to pick up Rosenfeld’s prescriptions for her.

“I just thought that was such a sweet thing to do,” said Rosenfeld, who lives alone in a house on Rosebank Avenue in the city’s Homeland neighborhood.

Rosenfeld, whose family predeceased her, is a stage-four cancer survivor living with type-2 diabetes — one of many Baltimore-area seniors who would be considered at risk if exposed to the coronavirus.

“My immune system’s very compromised,” she said. “I’m in for however long this lasts, unfortunately.”

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The coronavirus has forced Rosenfeld to suspend her volunteering for the Committee to Honor Vietnam Veterans at the Gilchrist Center, which canceled its planned fundraising gala next week.

While many stores are asking customers not to buy in bulk to make sure enough provisions remain on shelves to go around, the Baltimore County Public Library had no such policy before closing indefinitely, so she checked out nearly two dozen books to occupy her time at home.

“There’s no return date, because the libraries are closed,” Rosenfeld said. “I try not to read them all at once."

Rosenfeld likes to travel and has been on 15 international trips with the Overseas Adventure Travel agency. She expects the next one on the schedule — a cruise in Paris at the end of June — to be canceled, but she’s holding out hope for three more she has planned next year.

In the meantime, Rosenfeld has been passing the time with walks in the cemetery near her house, watching the squirrels and listening to the birds, and pondering just how lucky she is to be alive.

“I’ve been thinking how wonderful this world is and how wonderful this country is,” she said. “It has many, many faults, particularly right now, but it’s still the best country on Earth.”

Croaker is just three weeks removed from a hospitalization for congestive heart failure and fluid on the lungs. And she’s worried about a nationwide shortage of the medicine she uses to treat her lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

Demand for the medication, hydroxychloroquine, has surged in recent days, after President Donald Trump touted it as a possible coronavirus treatment, and a nationwide shortage has been driven in part by doctors inappropriately prescribing it for themselves, their friends and families, according to ProPublica.

What’s more, MTA Mobility is now only offering rides for essential trips — to the doctor, the supermarket and the bank.

“They done shut us all down," Croaker said. "We cannot come out the apartment, because we don’t have nowhere to go. So it’s important for people to stay in touch with each other.”

Some of Glenn Smith’s neighbors in the St. James Terrace Senior Apartments on Arlington Avenue in West Baltimore were frustrated by the closure of the community room where they like to play cards and shoot pool, he said.

But Smith, 70, the vice president of the residents council, said he and many of his peers were raised with an adage that is helping them cope with their isolation: “A hard head makes a soft behind.”

“I’ve been through most things people go through. I know when it’s time to be vigilant,” he said. “It’s really important we realize this coronavirus is nothing to take lightly. We just have to be vigilant and look out for ourselves.”

Brightview White Marsh resident Theresa Bauer, 87, uses FaceTime to visit with her son Bob in Nottingham. Brightview has closed their doors to visitors during the coronavirus outbreak to protect their residents.
Brightview White Marsh resident Theresa Bauer, 87, uses FaceTime to visit with her son Bob in Nottingham. Brightview has closed their doors to visitors during the coronavirus outbreak to protect their residents. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

At Brightview White Marsh — home to 72 assisted-living residents and another 25 in memory care — video chat sessions connect the elderly with their families, and staff members are making other adjustments to the daily routine, said Beth Lauf, vibrant living director.

The normal community happy hour gathering has been replaced by a pair of refreshment carts that stop by residents’ rooms and offer drinks, adult coloring books and other activities, she said.

“Just little things, when we go door-to-door, to make them smile," Lauf said. “We’re all here for one another right now."

Ann Savige was offered a choice between wine and ginger ale.

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“I chose the wine,” said the 84-year-old, who has lived at Brightview for about a year.

Meals have been brought to residents’ rooms, and they are provided with “every possible comfort,” she said.

Savige said she has kept up with her daily phone calls with her daughter, and she described her first FaceTime experience with wonder.

“I got to see my talented son-in-law and my one and only granddaughter,” Savige said. “It was just such a pleasure, because, of course, I’m very dependent on them for morale. They are a joy. ... I just think it’s fabulous.”

Her neighbor Charlotte Stran’s daughters couldn’t visit for Stran’s 92nd birthday Monday.

But the social quarantine didn’t prevent them from getting to see her smile as Brightview staffers brought out the birthday cake with rainbow sprinkles, the big balloon and the white daisies they’d sent, said Eileen Adams, who lives in White Marsh and usually visits her mother about three times a week.

“It was my feel-good of the month," Adams said. “She understands that this is a really bad situation in the whole world. But it’s hard for her not to be with us. ... Even though I can’t see my mom, I feel like she’s loved and cared for. That’s all I can ask for right now.”

Adams said she had addressed an email to the Brightview staffers who organized the call and found herself wondering: “What am I going to say to try to explain to them how much that meant to me?”

“Just to see her face when they brought that cake — for her to recognize the three staff people in the room were her friends," she said. "It wasn’t ‘I’m alone,’ or ‘you’re not here.’ It was just looking for the joy in the moment. It was great.”

Calls with family are a lifeline for the elderly amid a global pandemic that’s scary for all, Lauf said.

“These are tough times, and everyone’s going through a lot," she said. "A small phone call really does go a long way. Your day-to-day is busy, but all they think about is you.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Wilborn P. Nobles III contributed to this article.

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