Crews bring lasagna and connection to the locked-in elderly starved for a friendly face (video)
Syracuse, N.Y. — She put on a polka-dotted dress and an ivory beaded necklace. He wore a gray shirt and a matching SU cap. Then they went on their one outing of the day.
To the front porch.
Mary Schweitzer-Burgmeier sat in her wheelchair and her husband, Gary, stood. They both waved as the van pulled up.
Their eyes smiled from above their homemade masks as Sally Ward and her son Zakery got out.
Many days, Sally and Zak are the only people the Burgmeiers see face to face. The mother and son deliver food to the couple, along with roughly 30 others each day, for PEACE Inc.
Since the pandemic began, nearly 100,000 meals have been delivered to seniors and shut-ins in Onondaga County. The deliveries are being done by nonprofit agencies and volunteers. PEACE delivers 2,200 meals a week to seniors.
Many of them are people like Mary and Gary, who used to go daily to a senior center for lunch.
But Mary and Gary weren’t just going to the senior center for the food. They and the thousands of others were going to see their friends. To play a game, talk politics, learn a craft, brag about their grandkids. They were going so they could be with other people. They were going to be less alone.
Now, those thousands of seniors, at the highest risk of death from coronavirus, must be alone.
“It’s ironic that the thing we need to keep the virus under control can make older people have more decline,” said Dr. Sharon Brangman, head of geriatrics at SUNY Upstate Medical University.
Our nation was already facing an epidemic of loneliness, Brangman said.
“It’s just been heightened now 10-fold because of everything that’s going on,” she said.
Some seniors have access to technology and know how to use it, so they are able to fill the physical gaps with virtual connections. They can talk to the grandkids on Facetime and Zoom with the bridge club.
But many do not have the access or the know-how to do that, Brangman said. And then there’s lost physical touch and human connection. There is no substitute for that.
It’s not just a common-sense notion that loneliness is bad for people; there’s science behind it. Studies have found that loneliness, and the depression that comes with it, can increase blood pressure and worsen chronic conditions. It can also speed up cognitive decline, Brangman said. One study found that loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
That doesn’t mean seniors would be safer if they were venturing out. It means that the opportunities to reach out and connect with people who are isolated are more meaningful than ever, Brangman said.
So the people who set out to deliver thousands of meals each week are also bringing something more valuable than lasagna and turkey sandwiches. They are an ear to listen, even if only for a few minutes. And they are a real smile from another live human being, even if it’s behind a mask.
When Sally Ward and her son drive the delivery van full of blue coolers, they are checking on people who may see no one else. The Wards are reminding them they matter.
Food deliveries are the largest outreach to seniors, but there are other efforts. The YMCA has been calling seniors just to talk and check in on them on a regular basis. And the town of DeWitt has weekly “listening calls” where seniors can call in, listen and talk to a life coach.
The dog immediately starts barking from inside the yellow house when Sally and Zak pull up to the house on Syracuse’s West Side.
Hi, Luna, Sally calls out to the dog.
Patricia Morales swings the door open and waves.
She knows Sally from Sally’s regular job. She usually runs the weatherization program for low-income homeowners at PEACE and once helped Morales. Since that program isn’t operating now because of the pandemic, Sally is helping with food deliveries; Zak volunteers.
Morales and her husband go nowhere, except to doctor’s appointments. They have a litany of health problems that make them high risk for coronavirus, including a recent heart attack and emphysema.
“It’s hard,” Morales says. “We’re scared.”
Some days, one of their kids may bring the grandkids by so they can wave from the car.
Morales and her husband live mainly on their Social Security payments. Their car broke down right before everything shut down.
The food deliveries help them stretch their money and avoid shopping trips. This day’s delivery was lunch and dinner for the next two days: barbecued pork sandwiches, beef stew, pasta and meatballs and chicken cordon bleu.
Recently, the agency added fresh fruits and vegetables. A few clients cried, so happy to see the things they once got for themselves.
Morales apologizes that she was still wearing her pajamas. There’s just not much to break up these days.
Then she looks to Sally and Zak. They’re great, she says. “I love them.”
See you tomorrow, Sally says.
Sally and Zak get back into the van with eight blue coolers and drive on to Christopher Community apartments a few blocks away.
Maria Johnson comes down to let them in. She wears an Otto the Orange mask and pushes a walker.
The community room where she usually had lunch with her friends has a closed sign on it. It’s dark inside. Johnson is isolated even though her friends are all around her.
“It’s been rough,” she says. You don’t see anybody in the halls. Sometimes Johnson and a friend do laps, 6 feet apart, around the parking lot.
Like many of the clients, she has multiple health problems, including lupus. She’s lucky, she says. She has five kids and talks to them all on the phone. “I’m blessed,” she says. “There’s a lot that are lonely.”
See you tomorrow, Zak says.
And they wheel the dolly with the coolers on it into the elevator.
There, deliveries are spaced out on different floors. At each, they ring the bell and wait. If no one comes, they call or check with a neighbor.
I always wait, Sally says. Just in case the client has become ill and no one knows. That happened once before.
After two rings, a woman comes to the door in her wheelchair. She smiles and takes the bag, explaining that she’s figuring out how to use Zoom at the moment.
OK. See you tomorrow, Sally says.
Christine Quinn gets her meals delivered twice a week to her James Street apartment in Syracuse from the Salvation Army. She used to go to the agency’s senior day program. She would listen to R&B music and do crafts with friends she’d met there. Now, she misses them like family.
“Oh, my God, I wish I could just go there and open it up myself,” she says.
But when she opens her door and sees Patrick Banks with her food delivery, she’s reminded she’ll go back some day soon. “We’ve gotten so attached to them,” Quinn says.
Banks is one of the people who runs the day program. He started working with seniors because he was raised by his grandparents. He imagines them behind each door.
And for Quinn, when Banks shows up, it’s like a visit from family.
Banks knows the seniors are lonely and bored, and sometimes adds activities to the meal bags to break up the days. He brought Quinn some stained glass kits recently. And there are adult coloring pages going out soon. But Banks realizes he, too, is part of the delivery.
“That feels good,” he says.
Sally is wrapping up the delivery at Mary and Gary’s house. The couple is wearing masks they’ve jury-rigged out of black socks.
I’ll bring you some masks, Sally says.
See you tomorrow, she and Zak both say.
Mary and Gary both wave until the van drives off. Then they go inside. But Gary realizes he’s forgotten something and he pops back to the door.
The brown-bagged meals Sally and Zak stopped by to deliver are still sitting on the porch.