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Seniors Combat Loneliness While Sheltering In Place In Bay Area

Courtesy of Sejal Doshi
Donald Antonakas-Matusen and Sejal Doshi at Perry's in San Francisco at a Christmas dinner, 2018

When Governor Gavin Newsom issued his shelter-in-place order in mid-March, he said the elderly need to stay at home alone. Research has shown that loneliness can be as deadly as many other diseases. We checked in to see what seniors are doing to stay connected while staying safe.

"So, at the senior center, I took a dancing class -- specifically hula. And then the humanist group in which I made five presentations. Except for the Little Brothers, they're all gone. I mean, that's a big minus in my life."

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Did you know that the Big Bang happened about 13.5 billion years ago, and that the closest major galaxy is two and a half million light-years away from us?

That’s a big picture perspective that 80-year-old Donald Antonakas-Matusen pondered recently during a phone conversation with his friend Sejal Doshi. 

They were playing a game where Donald slides his finger across the top of the pages of his encyclopedia as Sejal counts to five. When she stops, his finger stops.

“So at random, I'd pick a section, a page, and on that page, I would read. If we don't like that page, we could choose a page ahead and one behind, but what we cannot do is just open up the book to any subject we might be interested in,” he says. 

It’s a game that Donald and Sejal played together in his single room occupancy studio in San Francisco beforethe shelter-in-place order. 

“This forces us to learn something new even about a subject, even if we aren't inclined to be interested in it,” he says.

And now they’re playing the game over the phone. Donald’s used to living a really social life. And he misses it.

“So, at the senior center, I took a dancing class — specifically hula. And then the humanist group in which I made five presentations. Except for the Little Brothers, they're all gone. I mean, that's a big minus in my life.”

Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly is a non-profit in San Francisco.

Its goal is to relieve isolation and loneliness among seniors. 

There’s plenty of research showing that loneliness was epidemic in the Western world even before the current coronavirus crisis.

“Isolation and loneliness is something that kills people. If you are somebody who's isolated, you have five to seven years of mortality greater than somebody who is socially active,” says Little Brothers’ Executive Director Cathy Michalec. 

“It lowers your immune system. And when you lower your immune system, you know, you can get different things wrong with you. You can have heart disease, diabetes, depression,” she notes. “The health effect is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And look at the national outcry when we found out that smoking can kill.”

The abrupt changes in the past few weeks are hitting the elderly particularly hard, Cathy says, and that’s why Little Brothers is working to keep up the phone calls to the 414 seniors it serves in San Francisco. 

But that’s just a tiny fraction of all the seniors living in the Bay Area. 

The California Department of Aging estimates that almost two million seniors live in the region. About 20 percent of them live alone. 

Dustin Harper, the Institute on Aging’s chief strategy officer, says that the shelter-in-place world is especially disruptive for the elderly.

“For many individuals who weren't necessarily anxious before, their world has been upended. They're no longer able to go and perform the same daily routines that they've performed for a long time or they don't have the access to the informal or formal support network that they've relied on. And so that that creates a real traumatic change in their lifestyle and can lead to heightened concerns,” he says.

He says calls to the Institute on Aging’s Friendship Line for elders have doubled since the shelter in place order came down.

Sally Saunders is an 80-year-old poet and she’s chafing under the order.

“I’m very stressed, I just don’t feel like myself. I feel like I’m in a nightmare and then I’ll wake up and it’ll all be over,” she told me over the phone, sounding agitated.

She lives in an assisted living facility and has her meals delivered to her. They’re left in a bag on her door handle. 

Beforethe shut-down, she wrote a book of poems while vacationing on the Oregon Coast with a friend. Now she’s cooped up in her apartment, conducting her life through her computer. She shared what her favorite activities are.

I really like to go for nature walks. I can't do that. I like to travel. I can't do that. I can't see my friends! I can't hug my friends!”

Last Tuesday, Governor Newsom announced that he was also trying to help by getting the state to partner with various non-profits to make phone calls to seniors. The state also opened A COVID-19 telephone information line. And seniors can also call 211 for logistical help in their own neighborhoods.

For his part, octogenarian Donald Antonakas-Matusen is doing the best he can. He’s listening to public radio, texting with his friends, and working up the courage to go outside for a walk. He’s also still chatting on the phone with his 32-year-old friend Sejal Doshi.

Donald marvels that just a few weeks ago They were sitting in his SRO listening to Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovitch’s Symphony Number Five. 

He was telling Sejal that this was a tune his best friend whistled just before he died last Fall. Donald misses sharing these stories in person.

“It's like a dream, though. Just think, Sejal was here, and I was here. And we were listening to music here. What planet was that on? You know, it's beginning to feel like a dream,” he says. 

It’s a dream — or a nightmare — that he and others wish they could wake up from soon.

For help and access to other resources, seniors can go to:

Crosscurrents COVID UpdatesHealth
Sarah Lai Stirland is a freelance journalist and editor living in the South Bay. Her reporting background is in technology, science writing, law and policy. For the past few years, she's written about issues related to aging.