The TRENDS podcast is a collaboration between the Community Foundation of Boulder County and KGNU. It dives deep into the community’s most pressing issues and explores the changes happening throughout Boulder County through the experiences of community members, especially those often rendered invisible by commercial media, to shed light on community challenges, solutions, and pathways forward for the county and the country.
Adults over 65 are expected to comprise 20% of Boulder County’s total population by the year 2030. Between 2020 and 2050, the county’s overall population is expected to rise by 33%, with a 58% increase in older adult population and a 244% increase in adults over 80. With an ageing population, we take a look at how many seniors in Boulder County are vulnerable to isolation.
“You become a very solitary individual and that makes you depressed, sad, lonely and, more importantly, you wonder what it is you’re doing in your old age, why are you still around?” — Barbara Steinmetz
82-year-old Barbara Steinmetz became aware of the danger of becoming an isolated senior when she began to lose her hearing.
“A number of years ago, my husband was getting cancer treatment and there was a big sign at the hospital, and it said: ‘free hearing test.’ So I immediately went and I had my hearing tested, and I found that I had a severe hearing problem, and I spoke with the otolaryngologist and I said, ‘well, you know, I’ve been getting along just fine without hearing aids.’ You know, I just wanted, I just wanted the information, I wasn’t planning on doing anything and I was told that if you don’t do anything, what will happen is you will lose your cognitive skills, you will lose your brain’s ability to take in information. And in addition to that you’ll experience social isolation.”
Social isolation is a major problem for seniors. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 11 million people aged 65 and older live alone. In fact, as people age, their likelihood of living alone increases. Children grow up and move away, sometimes a spouse or partner dies. Living alone does not necessarily mean you are isolated, but for seniors it puts you at a greater risk and that is a big concern, says neuropsychologist Dr. Naomi Rusk.
“Isolation is one of the main causes of health problems and premature death.” — Dr. Rusk.
A recent survey by the Boulder County Area Agency on Aging showed that 31% of older adults reported feeling lonely or isolated, and this should concern us all, says Dr. Rusk.
“One study says that loneliness is just about as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, which I actually thought was pretty interesting: just as dangerous as smoking 16 cigarettes a day. That gives us a context of the impact of loneliness on our actual physical health. So loneliness can affect all of these different systems in the body: heart health, cardiovascular health, mental health, depression and anxiety. It can exacerbate any mental illness we have, being alone and isolated. Just imagine you’re alone with your own thoughts. You’re alone with your own fears. You know, you’re not reaching out and you’re not being reached into either. It exacerbates mental illness; it causes, and it also perpetuates alcoholism and drug abuse. It affects our immune system. These are all systems affected by loneliness. So, we see this amazing interaction between feeling alone and the lack of purpose that you describe, and an actual impact upon our physical health. So, it turns out that loneliness isn’t just about whether or not you’re with people, because like you and I, we’ve all had that feeling of if you’re at a party, you could feel very alone. So, loneliness also has to do with not just how many people are around us, but how connected we feel when we’re with people. So, it’s important to notice inside ourselves: are we feeling connected to ourselves and other people, even when we’re with people, or are we feeling alone when we’re with other people?”
Giving seniors an opportunity to feel connected to others is a significant way to help them combat loneliness. One local program that offers seniors this type of meaningful connection is Circle Talk. Deb Skovron founded Circle Talk ten years ago.
“It’s a structure for people to connect with each other and feel a sense of belonging and what we call high engagement. And high engagement is different than just sitting and having a meal with a group of people. It actually is defined as having an opportunity to reveal and explore parts of yourself through your own story in a structured way, and then listen to other people’s stories. So, we introduce really engaging themes that are what we call universal life themes in a small circle of people. And a facilitator leads that discussion. And in that discussion, all kinds of things come out about a person’s humanity and about a person’s preferences and life experiences and things they’ve loved and people who have loved them. The level of conversation just deepens immediately because we’ve made it a safe and comfortable setting for people to interact.”
“Boulder Community Health will call us and say: ‘we get a lot of older adults that walk in the doors seeking, that are aging in place, living by themselves, coming in saying that they’re depressed, and they need counseling. And we’re interested in Circle Talk as a group format too, because what we really believe is that these people walking through the doors of the satellite clinics are seeking connection and belonging.’ And so that’s a good example of how to kind of float everybody’s boat higher by creating a group format rather than just delivering one-on-one therapy to a person, really creating a structure for people to engage with each other in a very deep and authentic way, and [show them] they are not alone in the world.”
Transportation is a crucial part of the puzzle. While many seniors still drive, physical and visual impairments can stop many others from getting behind the wheel. If seniors can’t leave the house, they run the risk of being further isolated. That’s where organizations like Via Mobility come in. The non-profit provides transportation services and resources to older adults and people with disabilities. Anybody living with any sort of mobility limitation.
One of the regular passengers, Diane Ferguson, relies on this service to get to her different appointments.
“I’m 70 years old and I’m very grateful that they have taken me a lot of places in and around Boulder, and I’m glad I didn’t have to isolate. I live alone with my cat.”
Joyce Bowen, another Via passenger, says that for her “the service is invaluable.”
“About three months ago, something hit my eyes. And for about a month I was blind, and I think they called it a hemorrhage in the eyes. And so, I work out twice a week – or did and so – I had to find some way to get over there.”
Joyce has lived in Boulder for 60 years and has deep roots in the community. Roots that she doesn’t want to lose just because she is having challenges with mobility.
“I taught school for 30 years. I taught mathematics, and before that, I was a geophysicist. And so, I’ve always kind of been in control of where I work and what I do, until I, well, I guess everybody is, they grow older even, you may have problems of some sort. So, I don’t know. And I did a lot of volunteer work, but I can’t get around so that’s out. So, I have to completely rethink my life and what I’m going to do. But I have to work out because if I don’t work out, I may just get to be somebody that just sits around and does nothing. And I don’t want to do that.”
Lyndsy Morse, the communications manager at Via, says the service helps people stay engaged with the community.
“It’s something that I think, in general, as a whole in society, is kind of diminishing. So, people who are used to it, who may have had friends, I’m really close to them and easy access to drive to different social engagements. Or, let’s say an older couple who lives in Boulder, but their family has all moved away. They don’t have the same social engagements that they were used to when they were in their younger years. So, having a way to get to and from social engagements that they still want to participate in can be one of the biggest hurdles for folks. So, we want to make sure that we can provide transportation, not just to those essential medical appointments, to get people to work. We want to be able to provide services to folks to just experience quality of life activities, whether that’s a trip to the library or to go play bingo with friends, or to go to church.”
Morse says that the need in Boulder County is much greater than the capacity they have at Via.
“We provide about a hundred thousand trips a year, and that doesn’t scratch the surface of the need, realistically.”
Having a social connection to other people and a sense of belonging in a community makes a huge difference to the quality of life of seniors.
At Presbyterian Manor, an independent living facility, resident Eve Booth, a former social worker who is almost 80, appreciates the downtown location. It gives her an opportunity to get out into the community.
“And there’s something about the stimulation to just… we can go to the post office, or walk the mall, or go to the library or the park. I volunteer with mental health partners at the West senior center with a women’s group. And I’m real clear: I do it for myself because, hopefully, the people who partake of that group find some benefit, but I need the professional contact. I need the support and I get some of it by giving it out.”
Volunteering gives Eve a sense of purpose. It’s the same for her neighbor, Margarita Delgado, who volunteers with the Area Agency on Aging. Margarita appreciates the opportunities to be social at Presbyterian Manor, but also the opportunities to be private.
“We are very social, and they like to sit down, [around] the coffee table, read the paper together, and laugh together and talk about the problems, or whatever. But other people [would] rather be in their own apartment, and nobody disturbed them. We are respectful of privacy and 100% we’re not intrusive. I don’t like to be knocking doors, so they see what people are cooking or doing or what not. What we call chisme en español no existe aquí.”
Margarita is originally from Puerto Rico and relocated to Boulder because her daughter lives here. She provides advice to the Triple A in Boulder County on how to reach the older Latinx community as she has observed another factor that is causing some seniors to be isolated.
“I have always thought that in a way because we are in an English-speaking country, we feel sometimes more isolated than the people who speak English from birth. The people who come from Latin America, in general, are either educated or people who are very capable and very easy to get, you know, into making friends. Because we in Latin America really live in a friendly way, but the language can be a big problem. Some people are shy to talk in English because they don’t think they can do it, or the people feel ashamed that they cannot do as well as everybody else. So since that is the case, voy a hablar en español. A mí me encanta conocer gente, no importa de dónde viene, ni cómo se vé, ni cómo habla. A mí lo que me gusta la gente porque es gente de dónde quiera que venga, pero la gente que tiene problemas de lenguaje tiene más aislamiento, definitivamente se siente menos parte de la comunidad.”
Nina Christensen, the bilingual wellness outreach coordinator for Boulder County Area Agency on Aging says that there are services available for non-English-speaking seniors.
“I am focusing on our Spanish-speaking older adults and trying to spread the word about all of the benefits and services that we offer. One of my main focuses is on teaching self-management, chronic conditions, classes to help those with chronic conditions with things like eating better, getting more physical activity, managing stress, how to speak with your doctors and your family members. And pretty much everything that comes with having a chronic condition.”
Christensen is also aware of the issue of isolation among seniors in the Latinx community.
“I mean, as humans, we’re social beings, we crave that connection. We need to have someone that we feel understands us, loves us unconditionally. So, it’s really important. I feel that if you don’t have that, it’s really hard to work on the other things. It’s really hard to work on eating well. So being connected socially is going to be one of the most important things you can do.”
Maria Esther Peña, is one of the Spanish-speaking seniors that is heeding the advice to take care of herself physically and socially. She takes the Balance, Strength and Flexibility class at the West Senior Center.
“Mira yo creo que la clase que yo tomo es precisamente de lo que necesitamos las personas mayores, yo soy una persona mayor y la gente aunque no me ve me ha de oír la voz, ¿verdad?”
“La fuerza, pos le doy a las pesas y todo lo que tú quieras, pero también, pos, siento que no son las mismas. Y pues la flexibilidad sí, eso sí, porque yo todavía hago las posturas de yoga todas las noches, entonces ahí no hay bronca.”
Maria is from Mexico City and came to Boulder after she retired, to be with her son and grandson. Maria Esther tells us that she would like that more Latinos would take the class, and she reflects that the elder Latinos living in Boulder do not take advantage of the programs that the city offers.
“Yo vine aquí ya pensionada, entonces no trabajé aquí, ellos dedicaron sus vidas a trabajar, se vinieron muy jóvenes a trabajar. Yo no sé, quizás ya no quieran saber más…”
“Pero en México, por ejemplo, hay muchas oportunidades, pero cantidad de oportunidades, en todos lados por parte del estado, del gobierno federal y de las universidades. Entonces, diario, si tú quieres ir a alguna actividad cultural, física y además somos más comunicativos y hablamos el mismo idioma. Somos más comunicativos, ya ves, hablamos más con las manos.”
“Y que la gente, como que la gente aquí, bueno, los latinos… no hablo de los otros porque no conozco, no sé cómo viven, a eso me refiero. Pero creo que ellos terminan de trabajar y dicen: ‘bueno, mi misión en la vida ya se terminó.’ Y es triste porque así nos deterioramos mucho más.”
The class is taught only in English. Maria Esther says that the teacher is really good, and she benefits even with the language barriers. The teacher of Maria Esther’s class is Linda Manchester.
“I was motivated to teach seniors, starting with my mother and my own personal experience of her moving to Boulder from a small town she lived in for 75, 80 years. She met friends in the class. My class members have been in my classes, some of them at least 10 years. So, they have become friends and social partners that go out to lunch. They encourage support to come to the exercise classes, and then, what they really love to do and maybe sometimes more so is go to lunch at our café.”
While the class focuses on physical strength and balance, Linda Manchester says it also provides vital social contact.
“I had a student a while ago who had been isolated for quite some time and was led by the resources department to my class. And she has remained in the class for probably at least five years and has found great community in the class, both coming to the exercise class and getting more confidence in her movement of self-awareness through breath, breath techniques that are taught, balance techniques that are taught. And she finds that she can walk on the sidewalk a lot easier. And even in the dark, because we do practice some of our balance techniques always around a chair for confidence, but even with their eyes closed, so that if they were in the dark, you know, they have the neuromuscular connection where they have at least practiced it before, so they have some experience and feel a little more secure doing some of those things.”
There are many classes and services available to help seniors in our community. With our aging population the need will only increase.
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The TRENDS podcast is collaboration between the Community Foundation of Boulder County and KGNU looking at issues affecting our community.