Throughout the past few months, only one place has been considered a safe haven: one’s home. Yet as the coronavirus pandemic has shaken the world outside of our hallowed front doors, an epidemic of loneliness has been spreading within the living rooms of New York’s oldest and most vulnerable population.
Likened to smoking 15 cigarettes per day by the federal government’s Health Resources and Services Administration, loneliness has the potential to significantly impact a senior’s physical and emotional well-being. The unique challenges of COVID-19 have proven particularly acute for the world’s aging population, as seniors’ lives have become precariously balanced between needing to self-isolate and needing to access what was once typical day-to-day aid, with many sacrificing basic comfort for safety.
SYNERGY HomeCare, a company that provides in-home care to those who need it, noticed a decline in their number of clients toward the beginning of the pandemic, as many of their elderly patients were fearful of having a caretaker enter their home. The company did, however, notice an uptick in the number of clients’ family members calling with reports of alienation.
“We were getting loved ones calling in and saying, ‘Hey, my mom is lonely,’” explained Shawn Walden, a president and part-owner of SYNERGY who serves the Manhattan community. “They shut down a bunch of activity centers ... and a lot of our elderly population isn’t really that comfortable with technology ... so we wanted to go into [seniors’] homes and engage them in activities that they were used to doing at the recreational centers.”
And so the COVID Loneliness Squad was born. While the era of coronavirus has been one of layoffs and joblessness, SYNERGY hired more carers, searching specifically for those comfortable with going into clients’ homes. The caretakers — who, along with their clients, complete a survey before every visit to ensure they are not exhibiting any coronavirus symptoms — provide a range of services, from helping with cooking, to facilitating Zoom calls, to simply having conversations.
“I Don’t Have to Worry”
The COVID Loneliness Squad does not only provide comfort to the client, though, as Walden explained that the program has been highly beneficial for family members who are unable to visit their aging loved ones during the pandemic. One such relative is Long Island-based college professor George B. whose 93-year-old cousin in Queens has been using SYNERGY caretakers for multiple years.
“I don’t have to worry — I know that there’s someone there 24 hours a day. If there’s an emergency, they know how to deal with it,” George said. One of the greatest comforts has been the assistance the COVID Loneliness Squad has provided in terms of technology. While George’s cousin used to receive home visits from his primary care physician, those appointments have been moved online during the pandemic; without SYNERGY, George’s cousin would be unable to connect with his healthcare provider.
“[The medical appointments] are where the SYNERGY helpers come in,” George said. “The doctor talks to the person at the house and discusses [my cousin’s] situation because he’s reluctant to get on the phone.” George’s cousin is not atypical, as many of SYNERGY’s clients are resistant to learning new technology.
Walden described the complications of having Zoom thrust upon the entire elderly population at once, saying that one of the biggest challenges of rolling out the COVID Loneliness Squad was “getting our clients to be receptive to technology ... But it proved rather easy after we had the caretakers in their presence.”
SYNERGY has begun using a Remote Patient Monitor system through which clients receive medical devices — blood pressure cuffs, glucometers, and scales, for example — that record their vitals; the numbers are then shared with the clients’ primary care physicians and family members.
Even with all of the physical and technological help SYNERGY caretakers have provided throughout the pandemic, the essence of the COVID Loneliness Squad is lost neither on them nor on those they aid.
“It’s not only about being certified home health aides going into the home — it’s being caring and compassionate individuals,” said Walden.
George echoed a similar sentiment, emphasizing that “[the caretakers] are doing a very, very difficult job ... These people are doing a tremendous service under very trying and abnormal circumstances, so they should be recognized for what they do.”
Walden predicts that the COVID Loneliness Squad will persist past the bounds of this pandemic. While a slight name alteration will be necessary, the skeleton of the program has proved successful and will therefore likely be unchanged. The formation of such lasting, sympathetic relationships between caretaker and cared for has the potential to profoundly reshape the life of a senior and those they love.
“As I told one of the [caretakers],” George reminisced fondly, “‘I feel that you are family.’”
“It’s not only about being certified home health aides going into the home — it’s being caring and compassionate individuals.” Shawn Walden, a president and part-owner of SYNERGY