Pro­grams can tackle feel­ings of iso­la­tion

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Max Siegel­baum

The string of tragedies that threw Linda Shomberg’s life into dis­ar­ray started with her hus­band’s di­ag­no­sis of Alzheimer’s and him los­ing their life sav­ings. It ended with her hav­ing a stroke.

Dur­ing that time, Shomberg, 72, be­came so­cially iso­lated, rarely in­ter­act­ing with other peo­ple or leav­ing her home. It’s a con­di­tion that re­searchers and so­cial workers say im­pacts an in­creas­ing swath of Colorado’s rapidly grow­ing se­nior pop­u­la­tion.

So­cial iso­la­tion can be as harm­ful for se­nior cit­i­zens as smok­ing 15 cig­a­rettes per day and can lead to higher rates of chronic dis­ease, de­pres­sion, de­men­tia and death, experts say.

But those dan­gers can be com­bated with ac­tiv­i­ties such as ex­er­cise, so­cial in­ter­ac­tion or sim­ply get­ting out of the house.

“Get your hair done, get out to the li­brary, go to church; those are re­ally im­por­tant for peo­ple’s lives,” said Jayla Sanchez War­ren, di­rec­tor of Den­ver’s Area Agency on Ag­ing. “When they lose that, they start to iso­late and life isn’t the same.”

Shomberg de­scribed her pre­vi­ous life as “mid­dle class.” A for­mer le­gal re­searcher and law li­brar­ian, she and her hus­band, Bernard Shomberg, had a nest egg in the form of an apart­ment com­plex he helped de­velop in Gree­ley. Be­fore Bernard died, they lost the prop­erty through fraud, she said. With her safety net gone, Shomberg was sud­denly thrown into poverty.

“I’m learn­ing to navigate to the poverty mine­field and all its col­lat­eral dam­age,” she said. “There was noth­ing left of my old life, ex­cept for mem­o­ries and my old fur­ni­ture. … Fore­clo­sure and re­pos­ses­sion were liv­ing, breath­ing words ev­ery day.”

Colorado is home to some of the most rapidly ag­ing coun­ties in the U.S., ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter. And close to one-third of Den­ver’s 69,000 res­i­dents over age 65 are at risk of iso­la­tion, War­ren said.

“This is a prob­lem that is only go­ing to grow, es­pe­cially in Colorado,” said Dal­las Jami­son, spokes­woman for the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Area Agen­cies on Ag­ing.

Iso­la­tion has mul­ti­ple causes, in­clud­ing the size of a per­son’s so­cial net­work and their level of mo­bil­ity. Many se­niors can be­come iso­lated be­cause of health is­sues, the death of a part­ner, out­liv­ing fam­ily and friends or a grow­ing fear of get­ting in­jured out­side their home.

To help address these is­sues, the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Area Agen­cies on Ag­ing has been run­ning its yearly “Home for the Hol­i­days” cam­paign, which en­cour­ages Amer­i­cans to reach out to se­niors at risk of iso­la­tion.

The cam­paign also pro­motes aware­ness of the as­so­ci­a­tion’s tools such as the Elder­care Lo­ca­tor and the na­tional hot­line, 1800-677-1116, which se­niors can use to find help from lo­cal agen­cies.

Ad­vo­cates say there’s often a stigma sur­round­ing iso­la­tion.

“How many peo­ple want to ad­mit they’re iso­lated? Some­times they’re out­liv­ing fam­ily and friends. Who wants to ad­mit I don’t have fam­ily and friends any­more?” Jami­son said.

Pro­grams such as Meals on Wheels pro­vide vital life­lines to the el­derly across the coun­try, be­yond a warm meal. “That might be the only in­ter­ac­tion they have that day,” she said.

Mo­bil­ity is also a se­ri­ous is­sue for iso­lated se­niors, es­pe­cially in ru­ral ar­eas.

Vol­un­teer driv­ers from the non­profit Neigh­bor Net­work helped Shomberg turn her life around, she said. They take her to doc­tor ap­point­ments and help her run er­rands such as gro­cery shop­ping.

Shomberg re­cently started a new min­istry at her church called Bless­ing Bags, to pro­vide food and sup­plies to the home­less. She be­lieves that iso­la­tion is a solv­able prob­lem. “You take a psy­cho­log­i­cal hit be­cause of the sad­ness and lone­li­ness, but with help from or­ga­ni­za­tions, and some­times just an at­ti­tude change, you come out of your­self.”

Joe Amon, The Den­ver Post

Linda Shomberg, 72, who be­came so­cially iso­lated after los­ing her hus­band and life sav­ings, is work­ing to get her life back on track.

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