Judy Brody once imagined a different life in her older age.
The retired teacher and her husband, Philip, a successful accountant, hoped to spend a long retirement together in similar ways as the years beforehand.
They would share laughs and meals with friends and family members. Escape Buffalo winters at their second home in Florida. Spend summer days sailing on Lake Ontario.
The couple got some of what they wanted – “It was hard when he was sick but it didn’t slow us down,” she said – but Philip died in 2009 after a series of health challenges that ended with heart failure. He was 72.
Brody could next have taken a step toward loneliness, then social isolation, a living condition that has become all too familiar – and alarming – to those most familiar with the aging U.S. population.
One in five adults over age 50 is at risk for social isolation, which is associated with higher rates of chronic disease, depression and dementia. It also can hasten death.
“It becomes sort of like a chronic disease,” said Pamela Krawczyk, director of the Amherst Center for Senior Services. “If you don’t address the related issues, it continues to destroy you little by little.”
[BELOW: WNY resources to help address social isolation]
Nearly half of older adults feel at least some sense of loneliness, but it can become more isolating with retirement, the loss of a spouse, poor physical or mental health, a sudden inability to drive or a hearing loss that worsens.
– Lonely older adults socialize, volunteer, attend religious services and participate in organized groups less frequently.
– They tend to live alone, but can cloister themselves in a family home or senior living community.
– They socialize less than once a week, have three or fewer friends, and experience considerable strain in family relationships.
“The health risks of prolonged isolation are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” reports the foundation, which along with National Association of Area Agencies on Aging has made it a priority this year to address the condition in a nation where half of those 75 and older now live alone.
Brody, who will turn 80 this summer, helped navigate through her loneliness to build a new, meaningful life. She and the Amherst senior center, where she volunteers twice each week, offered the following tips for those looking to do the same.
People at risk of social isolation should understand the associated dangers and choose to do what they can to overcome them. Families can provide encouragement, but need to be mindful of the grieving experience when retirement or the loss of a loved one is involved.
Brody spent the aftermath of her husband’s death learning to tackle finances he handled for 50 years. She decided to sell both the Florida home and the couple’s 29-foot sailboat. And, for the first time, she had to get used to living alone.
“After you get your life in order – and it takes a good year to do that – you start to think, ‘What am I going to do? The house is clean. The wash is done. I have to find something,’” Brody said.
She established a pattern that included reading at least one book a week, talking regularly – at least by phone – to her son, daughter and five grandchildren. She bought a treadmill.
Still, she wanted, needed, more. She called a friend in Massachusetts and told her, “This is a quiet day, and I’ve had too many quiet days lately. What do you do?”
The friend, who had moved to be near her son, knew nobody in the community at first outside of family. “She said, ‘Find a senior center,’” Brody said. “I did.”
It was the kind of beginning Krawczyk hopes everyone can find at a local senior center – but that isn’t always the case.
“You have to be ready and you have to be open to it,” she said. “Every person is so different but by opening up, you have a greater likelihood to connect with people.”
IT TAKES EFFORT – AND ACCEPTANCE
Brody, who laughs often, wears her white hair short and has the self-assurance of a grade-school teacher, lights up when talking about her grandchildren. She got on a plane about two decades ago during the wrong scheduled week to see one of her new granddaughters in Michigan. “I was so excited,” she said. It was symbolic of the attitude that has helped her move through her latest of life transitions.
“Life is what it is,” she said. “You do the best you can with what you have. When you become alone, you have to reach out, stay with it. Otherwise, you can fall into a funk.”
Still, looking to expand her social circle in her 70s seemed a bit daunting.
“I was a little apprehensive going to a senior center,” Brody said. “I thought what everybody thinks, ‘It’s for old, old, old people.’ It is not. We’ve got some of the neatest people. Some are old. I’m old for Pete’s sake. I used to be a blonde.’”
Most people who set foot in a senior center find something that intrigues them. Brody, who in her late teens worked as a sales clerk in a Rochester department store, gravitated toward working in the Amherst center gift shop, and at the information desk.
“This was filling a void,” she said. “I’ve made all kinds of connections, found old friends, found old neighbors.”
[RELATED PHOTOS: See more Amherst senior center photos at galleries.buffalonews.com]
She discovered others also looking to bring a resilient spirit into the later years.
“There will be people who come in and say, ‘I lost my husband last year. I lost my sister six months ago,” said Marlene Saviola, an Amherst senior center social worker. “It’s different kinds of grief, but it’s a similar feeling.” The concern and kinship is shared, too, with staff members who can help monitor the ebbs, flows and health changes in the process.
Senior centers also offer the chance to brush up on a hobby or mission – or find new ones. The Amherst center, which opened in 2000 along John James Audubon Parkway, boasts Life Fitness circuit training equipment, a lounge and art gallery, pool tables and card tables, computer training, a library and a community garden. It hosts about 60 classes each month and more than 35 clubs, among them a men’s golf league, walking group and woodcarving class, and bridge, bocce and camera clubs. It is open to those 55 and over, regardless of where they live, at a modest cost.
“When you’re 85, you’re no different than when you’re in your 20s,” Krawczyk said. “You might have more physical problems but you have to continue to have other plans for life.”
The center has more than 9,000 members; about 750 people use it daily.
“We want more,” Krawczyk said.
ACTIVITY IS A TONIC
Opportunities also spill far beyond the walls of senior centers.
Brody regularly attends a book club at the Tuscarora Yacht Club, the former sailing home for she and her husband. She and a friend like to head downtown to the Theater District – which brings back memories of the shows Brody once saw when she and her husband had Studio Arena season tickets. She’s a weekly regular at her favorite restaurant, Adam’s Rib in Snyder, and often dines elsewhere, too, with new and old friends. Friends and family members from across the country stay with her regularly, and she travels to see them.
She is hardly the only older volunteer in the region, either.
“When you start doing things you love but didn’t have time for when you worked, you start meeting like-minded people,” said Patricia Dowling, director of the Erie County Department of Senior Services RSVP Program. The program touts more than 800 older volunteers who work with 99 nonprofit enterprises. It also runs the popular University Express program, in which those in the age group eligible for AARP benefits get the chance to attend free classes taught by peers who have become experts in a variety of subjects.
“Once people start volunteering, this is the successful plan for the future,” Krawczyk said. “All of a sudden, they want to start giving back, to engage in something.”
FAMILY DYNAMIC COUNTS
Those in their 50s – and sometimes younger – also are welcome to join their older relatives at a local senior center for concerts, clubs and programs.
Family members should understand the drawbacks of parents and other older relatives spending too much time alone – but they also need to be mindful about how they talk to their elders, said Karen Lisiecki, project coordinator of senior outreach services as the Amherst center.
“Don’t talk down,” Lisiecki said. “You didn’t like it when you were a child and your parents talked to you in a condescending manner. Likewise, be respectful. Tell them that you care about them, you love them.”
“The greatest thing you can do is ask them what they want,” Saviola said, “then listen.”
PLACES TO TURN FOR SUPPORT
Those concerned that they or someone they love may be struggling with social isolation can visit connect2affect.org. This part of the AARP website includes a self-assessment to help determine if someone is struggling, as well as tips about how to address that.
Local resources include:
NY Connects (aging.ny.gov; 800-342-9871)
A starting point for those looking for senior services through local agencies, including the Erie County Department of Senior Services or outlying county Offices for the Aging, as well as a variety of supports for families dealing with loved ones of any age who have a range physical and mental health conditions.
Erie County Department of Senior Services (www2.erie.gov/seniorservices; 858-8526)
Offers a wide range of resources for Erie County seniors, including a list of senior centers and nutrition sites and an online listing of free University Express academic classes that run through Aug. 9.
Telephone Assurance Program (ccwny.org/telephone-assurance-program; 218-1400)
Catholic Charities of Buffalo provides this free service in which volunteers regularly call those who are disabled or age 60 and older to check on their well-being and offer social support.
Meals on Wheels for WNY (mealsonwheelswny.org; 822-2002)
Offers up to two healthy meals a day to those who are disabled and homebound 60 and over in a wide swath of the region. For a listing of more chapters, visit mealsonwheelsamerica.org.
Canopy of Neighbors (canopyofneighbors.org; 235-8133)
This nonprofit matches volunteers with those 60 and over in the city of Buffalo who need help with transportation, shopping and social needs, as well as tackling odd jobs around their residences.
Hearts & Hands (hnhcares.org; 406-8311)
This nonprofit matches volunteers with seniors looking to age in place who have transportation and other needs. It serves various communities in Erie and Niagara counties.
Senior Companion Program (people-inc.org; 768-2381)
This People Inc.-run program offers volunteers to help those 55 and older with grocery shopping and errands, friendship and companionship, alerting doctors and family members to potential problems, and providing respite to caregivers.
Stay Fit Dining Program (www2.erie.gov/seniorservices; 858-8526)
Offers healthy noonday meals to those 60 and older at sites across the county for $3, though no one unable to pay will be turned away.
YMCA Buffalo Niagara (ymcabuffaloniagara.org)
Offers a variety of group fitness activities, personal training, and health, wellness and nutrition programs for seniors. Accepts BlueCross BlueShield Aqua and Medicare Advantage discounts.
RESOURCES FROM THE BUFFALO & ERIE COUNTY LIBRARIES
"The Happiness Equation: Want nothing + do anything = have everything," Neil Pasricha
"Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection," John T. Cacioppo
"Never be Lonely Again: The way out of emptiness, isolation, and a life unfulfilled," Patricia Love
"The Third Chapter: Passion, risk, and adventure in the 25 years after 50," Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot
"You are the One: A bold adventure in finding purpose, discovering the real you, and loving fully," Kute Blackson
For more information, visit buffalolib.org.
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon