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Local seniors struggle to overcome COVID-related isolation

Some 'have declined in their physical and mental health ... (and) may take years to recover or may never get back to their previous baseline,' says local doctor

COVID-19 has taken a toll on many in numerous ways, but arguably, some of those who have been most affected are seniors.

In the early days of the pandemic, before the vaccine, many seniors died due to the virus, while many others were hospitalized as news of deadly outbreaks in longterm care homes hit the headlines.

Much more pervasive, however, is the toll the pandemic has wrought on seniors in terms of isolation and deterioration of their mental and physical health.

Dr. Kevin Young, a geriatrician formerly with Orillia Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital (OSMH) and now at Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care, says seniors have suffered.

“It is variable, but in general many older adults modified their activities and were less engaged socially and physically," said Young. "This is particularly true for individuals who were living with complex chronic disease."

He noted there was also, among many, a fear - especially in the early waves of the pandemic - of going to the hospital or doctor’s office.

"As a result, we noted physical deterioration, progression of chronic disease, and new or worsening issues with mental health," said Young. "People describe being isolated, and in many cases have not benefited from the regular interactions with friends and families that sustained them in the pre-COVID era.”

Erica Veldman, the city's sport and senior recreation coordinator, agrees.

“I heard many comments in the winter months, especially when we were hosting virtual programs, that the senior population felt their physical fitness was decreasing at an alarming rate," said Veldman. "Once the warmer weather arrived, many were able to get out for walks and stay active with other activities, but the cold months were very challenging.”

Local senior Gail McIlroy was able to get out for walks with her dog, Bentley, during most of the pandemic, but admits she felt the isolation keenly.

“Virtual activities became readily available, including exercise programs, visits with family members through social media, FaceTime, Zoom," said McIlroy. "The joy of touch and hugging was unheard of. A simple cup of tea (with a friend) in the fresh air became an unbelievable treat."

Now that the pandemic is more under control in our area, thanks to vaccines and strict guidelines, can our seniors get back on track?

Jack Mair, the city's recreation program supervisor, hopes that expanded offerings for seniors in Orillia and area will help participants regain physical and mental health.

“We have relaunched Seniors at Play this month for in-person programs … participants pay $10 per month for access to all programs for the month of October," Mair explained, noting 50 memberships had been sold as of last week.

"Furthermore, we have launched Silver Sneakers, which is a grant-funded initiative centred around physical fitness programs at the Orillia Recreation Centre," said Mair, explaining participants with a Seniors at Play membership have free access to these programs as well until March 2022.

Veldman says local seniors seem to be returning to the things they enjoy. 

“From my interactions recently as our in-person programming has begun, our seniors are saying that they are slowly getting back into the swing of things and enjoying the physical programs, but especially the social aspect of things again," Veldman explained.

Just being able to visit with friends and recommence pre-pandemic activities like book clubs, music lessons, and meetings in the community is helping to buoy spirits and boost mental health.

But there are still so many activities, including volunteer work and larger gatherings, that remain out of reach.

“It is a very slow return to normal, and while some older adults are starting to reconnect with their previous activities, some are not able or are fearful," said Young. 

"Many of the services have not restarted and may never be offered in the same way. There are also those individuals who have declined in their physical and mental health, or both, who may take years to recover or may never get back to their previous baseline," said the doctor.

"We are currently planning how to help these individuals and support them to continue to live independently in the community. The changes that occurred to the health of older adults will continue to ripple through the system for years to come," said Young.

Young encourages those with seniors in their lives to regularly reach out to them and inquire about their physical and mental health.

Physiotherapy and regular exercise classes, either in person or virtual, can be very helpful for regaining lost strength and abilities. Getting out and walking regularly with a friend is a great way to stay active and avoid isolation.

For more information on Seniors at Play and seniors programs at the City of Orillia, click here.