Cleveland-area senior programs aim to decrease social isolation

The pandemic has been tough on seniors, contributing to their social isolation. Programs like this recent Halloween party at the May Dugan Center work to keep seniors from spending too much time alone. [Lisa Ryan / Ideastream Public Media]
The pandemic has been tough on seniors, contributing to their social isolation. Programs like this recent Halloween party at the May Dugan Center work to keep seniors from spending too much time alone. [Lisa Ryan / Ideastream Public Media]
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Many Northeast Ohio seniors suffer from social isolation, and the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated an already chronic issue. Experts say all this alone time is a health risk and can be damaging mentally and physically. 

The May Dugan Center on Cleveland’s west side has a program aimed at addressing social isolation called Seniors on the Move. They met recently for a Halloween party, one of their first times meeting in person and indoors in over a year due to the pandemic.

Seniors on the Move member Vanessa Junior said she thrives on social interaction. She’s an extrovert, and she said she would be depressed if she didn't have social activities.

“I’ll be honest with you. It would be sad,” the 59-year-old said. “Just being closed in and masking all the time is too much already, it wouldn’t be a good space for me.”

Seniors on the Move member Vanessa Junior (left) is dressed as a Mardi Gras jester as part of the organization's Halloween party. [Lisa Ryan / Ideastream Public Media] 

For seniors, social isolation is as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes each day, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration. Researchers found that seniors who don’t socialize have higher rates of heart disease and stroke, and it can also impact cognitive impairment.

Many seniors have fixed incomes, and socialization can be especially hard for people with lower incomes, said May Dugan senior and wellness coordinator Vanessa Jackson.

“Most of the seniors in this program live on $10,000 a year or less. That kind of budget doesn’t leave them any room for social activities,” Jackson said.

As with many health issues, the pandemic made social isolation even worse, with many seniors stuck in their homes, said Dabney Conwell, vice president of the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging.

“The pandemic definitely has highlighted this area, I think it’s highlighted it for all of us, older adult or not, but it’s definitely there for older adults, specifically for those who are homebound who don’t have the ability to get out and go places. As things began to open back up, it’s pushed them back into social isolation,” Conwell said.

May Dugan and the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging have had activities for seniors as a way to combat social isolation long before the pandemic, and they also provide seniors with financial and health education and resources.

Now, MetroHealth is expanding its offerings in this space as well.  

MetroHealth will open new centers focused on keeping seniors active

The hospital system has been surveying and screening patients about how social determinants can impact their health. For seniors, they’ve found social isolation is one of the biggest issues.

That’s why they are planning to overhaul their senior care center into what the hospital will call Spry Senior.

The name Spry means active and lively, which is what Dr. Nabil Chehade said they are going for. Chehade will oversee the Spry Senior centers.

The current senior care center in Old Brooklyn has a waiting room, stairs, and a parking garage, which the new centers won't have. The new Spry Senior centers will have more accessibility and activities. [Lisa Ryan / Ideastream Public Media]

Instead of a waiting room, they are calling it an activity room, he said.

“There will be no waiting room per se. There will be chairs available for them. But it’s meant to be a destination for the senior to become comfortable to come in and drop in perhaps once a month or even twice a month, even if they don’t have a specific appointment with the doctor,” Chehade said.

The centers themselves will be built in existing strip malls, which will allow for fewer doorways, fewer hallways, and fewer stairs: all ways to make buildings more accessible for seniors, said MetroHealth’s Chair of Geriatrics Dr. Jim Campbell.

“If you build a building to the American Disabilities Act, that’s great, but that’s not good enough for seniors,” Campbell said. “The American Disabilities Act is based on a Vietnam veteran who’s 28 years old who has full upper body strength. So if you look at the ramps and the moves and the doorways, they’re actually not big enough for a senior who has more impairment than that. They may have not only physical impairment but cognitive impairment.”

There will also be more parking closer to the building—a problem in their current senior center’s Old Brooklyn location.

“The new facilities will be designed where the parking space will be only a few steps away from the door to the receptionist," Chehade said. 

One of the reasons MetroHealth is looking toward senior health is that Cleveland and Cuyahoga County residents are getting older. It’s estimated that by 2030 in Cuyahoga County, almost 30 percent of the total population will be over 60, higher than the statewide and national averages, according to the Center for Community Solutions in Cleveland.

MetroHealth’s Chair of Geriatrics Dr. Jim Campbell (left) talked about what will look different in the new center. Dr. Nabil Chehade (right) will oversee the new centers. [Lisa Ryan / Ideastream Public Media]

The first four locations—set to open in 2022-- will be in Solon, Medina, Strongsville and Parma. The new centers will be a “multi-million dollar investment,” Chehade said, although he wouldn’t give an exact number.

“We want to have it where they can quickly and easily get to a center that’s in their neighborhood, as opposed to having to drive a distance to get to a major center,” Campbell said.

The centers will focus on group activities like educational programs and fitness classes, including a class that helps seniors work on balance in order to prevent falls. The staff can also connect people with resources to help them pay their bills or find food, transportation, or other services.

The MetroHealth senior centers are only for people older than 65, but MetroHealth will be flexible when it comes to younger spouses or partners participating.

“But it truly is not meant to bring your children and your grandchildren to this environment. It is dedicated for 65 years and older," Chehade said.

At this age, the average person still has about a third of their life left to live, Campbell said. 

“So there’s a lot of living to do, and usually the first 20 years of that, you’re actually very healthy, but there’s a lot you need to do to try to maintain that.”

And one of the first steps to maintaining good health—as the seniors at the May Dugan Center might know—is just by having fun.

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