Re-Connecting: How to Keep Vulnerable People Safe – AND Healthier Overall

Adult Care Currents (a St. Ann Center publication)

2020 gave many people an up-close and personal look at the isolation that’s long plagued elders and adults with disabilities.

Isolating to protect ourselves and those we love from the ravages of COVID-19 made perfect sense, of course — there were few other strategies to prevent contracting the disease or to treat it.  So did keeping especially vulnerable populations safer at home.

Still, we can’t ignore that this strategy comes with its own very real health risks. Social isolation and loneliness, researchers have found, put people at greater risk for serious health conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, dementia, and even death – while other studies have shown that people engaged in meaningful activities with others tend to live longer, happier lives. 

Healthier Aging

“Social connectedness is incredibly important in keeping people going every day and keeping people healthy,” says Bryan James, an epidemiologist at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago, adding that relationships with friends and family help people stay mentally sharp as they grow older.

“The misery and suffering caused by chronic loneliness are very real and warrant attention,” Stephanie Cacioppo, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago, noted in 2019. “As a social species, we are accountable to help our lonely children, parents, neighbors and even strangers in the same way we would treat ourselves. Treating loneliness is our collective responsibility.”

Being alone doesn’t always mean being lonely… but those who find themselves suddenly alone due to death of a spouse, retirement, loss of mobility, and separated from friends and family are particularly vulnerable to loneliness, as are those of low income or unpaid caregivers.  Sometimes, isolation and loneliness set in gradually, after those factors occur cumulatively, chipping away at a person’s connections – and leaving them sitting in front of the TV or surfing the net all day. 

Phone calls and digital contact don’t really deliver the health benefits of face-to-face interactions, a 2015 study shows.

Pre-pandemic, senior centers and meal programs, worship and fellowship opportunities, volunteering, and public transportation all made it easier for seniors and those with disabilities to build and keep relationships.

Connect through Day Programs

Others got those benefits courtesy of a good adult day service program that offered socialization with staffers and other clients as well as engaging activities and physical exercise geared to their abilities. Such a program also allows a person to remain at home and provides affordable respite for their spouse or other caregiver.

Most Milwaukee adult day programs closed at least temporarily during lockdown and are only now considering re-opening. Those who want to try one, or try a new one, will want to look for a program that has incorporated CDC recommendations to prevent COVID-19 transmission, and even gone beyond.

For example, St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care, which re-opened in mid-June and is enrolling at its two locations in Milwaukee, recently launched a vaccine program for staff, volunteers and clients, in addition to installing an air filtration system at each campus to disable viruses and instituting other changes.

“During this time of pandemic, we have all experienced the feeling of being isolated and alone,” said Sr. Edna Lonergan, St. Ann Center founder and president, who’s often noted the special friendships she sees develop as clients engage in games, swimming, crafting, music and more.

“Here, people can spend their day in a homelike setting. Meanwhile, their caregivers can go to work or get a needed break.”

Resources:

St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care offers adult day programs at its two Milwaukee campuses, Additional services for adults include assisted bathing in wheelchair-accessible tubs; overnight respite care; swimming in a warm-water, wheelchair-accessible pool; a hair and nail care salon; a dental clinic solely for people with disabilities; and a medical clinic.

For more information about the southside Stein Campus, 2801 E. Morgan Ave.: contact Shannon Schave, (414) 977-5027. To learn more about the northside Bucyrus Campus, 2450 W. North Ave.: contact Valerie Ruppel at (414) 210-2459. 

Aging and Disability Resource Centers of Milwaukee County. Link to both centers via the Wisconsin Department of Health Services website.  ADRCs are the go-to for information about aging or living with a disability–for individuals, concerned relatives or friends, or professionals. ADRCs offer information on a broad range of programs and services, and serve as access point for publicly funded long-term care.

Top 5 Reasons for Choosing Adult Day Services from Friendship Center of Montecito, California

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