Before the coronavirus outbreak, 86-year-old Ron Drouin managed to venture out of his Biddeford condo a few times each week and drive himself to the supermarket, the doctor’s office or the bank.

Now, the usually upbeat retired executive is completely homebound, worried that his chronic lung illness, which requires him to walk slowly with a cane, also makes him especially vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.

So Drouin, who lives alone and volunteered as a Rotary leader for 48 years, is counting on neighbors and others to get his mail, bring him food and help him with other household needs.

“I don’t dare go out because I don’t want to get the virus,” Drouin said. “I’m very thankful because people say, ‘It’s our turn to help you after all you did for the community.’ ”

Across Maine, neighbors, volunteers and agencies are stepping up to help seniors who are now stuck at home, trying to stay healthy and not contract the virus. Their concern is valid, because 80 percent of COVID-19 deaths are among people age 65 and older, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Senior advocates are assessing and retooling existing programs and developing new efforts to address the shifting and expanding needs of older Mainers, often in ways that likely will benefit people of any age who become isolated because of the coronavirus.

They’re especially focused on finding ways to connect isolated seniors through online platforms and prevent the anxiety and depression that can take root during stressful times and either cause or complicate other health problems. The challenge is acute in Maine, which has the nation’s highest median age (44.7 years) and largest proportion of people 65 and older (20.6 percent). That’s about 276,000 people among 1.34 million.

Jess Maurer, head of the Maine Council on Aging, hosted a statewide conference call last week with an unprecedented 60 senior advocates. They talked about all the ways older Mainers have been and will be affected as they are isolated in the weeks and possibly months ahead.

The discussion ranged from how to fulfill basic needs, such as food, medicine and transportation, to how to keep seniors connected to their communities and avoid the detrimental health impacts of social isolation. Some agencies and community groups are scrambling to provide services.

“Right now there’s a lot of confusion in a lot of ways,” Maurer said. “Many agencies are dealing with their own challenges of what they can keep open and what they have to close and how they can deliver services differently. They’re worried about doing what’s right for their employees and the people they serve and they’re looking for others to help them.”

Seniors in Maine may be particularly vulnerable because most of the state is rural and social service agencies are often stretched thin, Maurer said. Maine housing authorities are on high alert because they have hundreds, sometimes thousands of older and disabled residents who live in apartment complexes that are far from shopping areas and lack accessible transportation.

Still, many older Mainers are already online and can stay connected to family, friends and their local knitting or book group through Facebook, Zoom, Skype and other internet resources. And neighbors are helping neighbors, like @CollieGirl of Portland, whose Twitter post Thursday explained how she has “adopted” an 84-year-old woman who lives around the corner and will be running errands for her because they are now “coronavirus buddies.”

“The next line of defense is Mainers being good neighbors,” Maurer said. “Mainers are good-hearted people who want to help their neighbors. But don’t just offer to help. Call and say, ‘I’m going to the grocery store. What can I get you?’ ”

Some established senior programs have been hard hit because they rely on senior volunteers to provide services, especially Meals on Wheels, a federally funded feeding program that is considered a front-line measure in keeping seniors healthy in the best of times.

At the Westbrook hub of the Portland-area Meals on Wheels program, about half of the 30 regular volunteer delivery drivers have suspended their service because they are seniors who are self-isolating to stay healthy and avoid spreading the virus.

Westbrook police officers and other city employees stepped in last week to fill some volunteer slots, delivering two weeks worth of freezer-ready meals to each client in case future service is interrupted. Employees of the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office volunteered to deliver meals in the Bath area.

Municipal and county workers have already passed background checks necessary to be Meals on Wheels drivers, so they were ready replacements for the sudden loss of so many volunteers.

“We’ll get through this,” said Debbie Almeida, Westbrook site manager. “I’ll figure it out as we go and get it done.”

Maurer said her organization is pushing Maine lawmakers to increase funding for Meals on Wheels programs. Also, Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who heads the Senate’s Aging Committee, announced Friday that, at her urging, the federal government has expanded eligibility for home-delivered meals to include seniors who are self-isolating to avoid contracting the coronavirus.

Maintaining a healthy diet is an important aspect of weathering coronavirus isolation at any age. But seniors are especially vulnerable if they are wholly disconnected from other people, said Dr. Susan Wehry, a psychiatrist and geriatrics chief at the University of New England’s medical school.

In times like this, when news channels provide a continuous flow of anxiety-provoking information, even watching television can have traumatic physical and emotional effects. The resulting feelings of helplessness and depression can cause or worsen existing health problems.

“Everything about this is a cascade effect,” Wehry said. “As time goes on, the longer a person is alone, it makes it more difficult to manage health conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure.”

Wehry said isolated seniors should do what they can to eat healthy foods, exercise, get plenty of sleep and fill their lives with positive activities that counterbalance the negatives of the coronavirus outbreak. Taking a walk outdoors, if a person is able, or watching a wildlife video online can be a mood-booster.

Ron Drouin, the Biddeford senior, agrees that attitude matters. He watches the news once or twice a day but doesn’t dwell on it. He calls friends and reads a lot.

“You have to stay positive,” Drouin said. “We’ve been through things like this before. Take it from an old fart. Our patience is being tested. We’ll get through this.”

Neighbors and other community members also can help to connect isolated seniors, especially those who may have symptoms of dementia, which can be triggered by disruptions in daily routines, Wehry said. Groups are setting up virtual chat rooms for seniors and their caregivers, creating online platforms where knitting groups and bridge teams can continue to meet, and expanding weekly or daily check-in call networks.

“There are ways we can stay in touch,” Wehry said. “A five-minute conversation can be very helpful.” She noted a study that found older adults experienced as much satisfaction in receiving a daily five-minute call from a social worker as they did from a monthly 50-minute home visit.

Harpswell Aging at Home is one community-based volunteer group that’s ramping up to help seniors who are isolated because of the coronavirus outbreak. In recent days, 18 new volunteers have joined the group, which provides community meals, rides, home repairs and help with household chores.

To increase communication among Harpswell’s older residents, the group is expanding the list of seniors who receive weekly wellness calls, said Judy Muller, a licensed clinical social worker who is a leader of the group.

It’s also developing a buddy-call network based on friendships that have formed since the volunteer group started a few years ago. Harpswell is a coastal town of about 4,900 people that is made up of several villages and islands. Various programs organized by the group have inspired friendships among seniors who previously didn’t know one another or had little contact.

“We’re doing it as a way to develop more natural supports in the community,” Muller said. “It helps to avoid depression or letting their worries escalate. They can be grounded in the support this safety net provides. It’s important for all of us not to feel alone when we’re worried or stressed.”

The coronavirus also led the Harpswell group to shift the purpose of its most popular program, Lunch with Friends, free meals that town residents cook at home and serve once or twice each week at a community hall.

The gatherings attract residents of all stripes and have drawn as many as 100 seniors, said Surrey Hardcastle, a retired school administrator who heads the meals program. Menus include sweet potato soup, Irish fish pie, Italian spaghetti and meatballs, roast beef with mushroom gravy, goat cheese and spinach frittata, Guinness brownies and pistachio cookies.

“I mean, we eat well here,” Hardcastle said proudly. “The financial aspect is part of it for some people, but really the social part – the community coming together and showing they care – is huge.”

Last week, when Gov. Janet Mills banned gatherings of 10 or more people, Hardcastle and a few other volunteers started packaging the meals under sterile conditions and distributing them from a central location.

One at a time, seniors approached the door at the Church of the Nazarene hall and received meals for themselves and possibly a spouse or a neighbor, if they asked for a few extra. Eighty-nine lunches were handed out Tuesday and 71 lunches were handed out Thursday.

“The socializing piece is going to be missed, but we’re trying to keep that connection by providing meals to go,” Hardcastle said. “It’s what communities do.”

Some of those meals are being delivered to 78-year-old Brenda Bonney and her 73-year-old companion, Wesley Haynes, a Harpswell couple who have been especially isolated by the coronavirus outbreak.

Bonney, a retired retail clerk, is vision-impaired, and the couple recently became homebound after Haynes, a former oil deliveryman, had several strokes and could no longer drive. Dependent on Social Security, they have come to rely on townspeople and area social service agencies to deliver food, prescriptions and household supplies and drive them to medical appointments.

The meals provided by Harpswell Aging at Home are “so nice” and they help Bonney stretch her extremely tight food budget. But the sentiment that comes with the lunches, prepared and delivered by concerned neighbors, is worth even more. For Bonney, it’s like a comforting hug.

“It’s such a good, warm feeling,” Bonney said. “It’s almost like having family wrapped around you.”


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