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‘I’m lonely and isolated’

‘I’m lonely and isolated’

Independent seniors tap inner strength during pandemic

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Lenore Berkman, 93, of South Orange, remains positive. “I try never to think of the dark side.” Photo Courtesy Laurie Berkman
Lenore Berkman, 93, of South Orange, remains positive. “I try never to think of the dark side.” Photo Courtesy Laurie Berkman

Before the Covid-19 pandemic abruptly curtailed her active lifestyle, Audrey Kaufman, 90, spent little time at her Cranford home. She played mah jongg at the YM-YWHA of Union County, participated in the Y’s senior group New Beginnings, frequently gambled in Atlantic City, attended Hadassah meetings, and took a Yiddish class — in addition to driving to the grocery store, and running other errands.

“Now I can’t do any of that,” Kaufman told NJJN in a phone interview. “We’re cut off from everyone.” 

For months, she’s been isolated and alone in her 10-room house, and she doesn’t own a smartphone or a computer. Kaufman can’t visit with her daughter, who lives in Scotch Plains but is immobile from a broken ankle. Her other daughter, a nurse, lives in Seattle.

“I haven’t seen a person in 10 weeks,” Kaufman said.

Her days are limited to taking walks, doing laundry, and talking to her daughters on the phone. But mostly, she said, “I watch a lot of TV, mostly ‘Law and Order.’”

Some days the sense of isolation is worse than others.

“I feel lonely on the weekends,” she said. “The days seem short during the week, but on the weekends they seem longer. I don’t know why.”

“I’m terrified,” said Sari Becker, 69, of South Orange, about leaving her apartment.

Everyone has lost the hustle and bustle of daily life as a result of precautions taken to prevent the spread of  Covid-19. But the lack of human contact and sense of isolation is amplified for seniors who prided themselves on their independent and active lives but are now confined to their homes.

“I’m lonely and isolated and feel unwell in many ways,” said Sari Becker, 69, who  lives in Village Apartments of the Jewish Federation in South Orange, one of four senior residences that comprise Jewish Community Housing Corporation (JCHC). Other than to take out the garbage or get her mail, she has only been out of her apartment once since mid-March when the lockdown began.

That day, she recalled, she got too close to one resident, took off her mask to be heard while she was talking, and pet the dog of a young couple walking by. She chided herself. “I realized how stupid that was,” Becker said. Afterward she went inside and has not been out since.

“I’m terrified,” she said.

A former public relations executive whose adult son lives in Manhattan, Becker misses little things like getting her hair cut; going to Ashley’s, her favorite grocery store in South Orange village; and treating herself to banana walnut pancakes at the Blue Moon Diner. Now she watches a lot of news, posts about politics on Facebook (“not cat videos”), and streams Netflix at night.

Melancholy, she said, is always lurking in the back of her mind. “I can go from feeling, you know, absolutely normal to, you know, sadness.” Even though Becker is in touch with a social worker, she said, “It’s really hard. You know, I, I don’t know when I’m going to see my son again.”

Said Lenore Berkman, 93, who also lives at Village Apartments, “We have to look for things to keep our minds busy, and that’s what I’m trying to do.” Now she’s working on a family tree, reading, and knitting, and when the weather’s nice she takes a half-hour walk outside (she walks in the hallways when it isn’t).

Berkman’s also able to see her daughter when she drops by to deliver groceries or prescriptions. “We stand six feet apart,” Berkman said with a wistful laugh, grateful to see her daughter, even in this limited way. “She puts the bag of groceries down, I pick it up. And that’s about it. We wave to one another.”

Still, she tries to stay upbeat, and to that end enjoys watching N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefings. “He gives everybody hope,” she said. “And we’re all hoping, of course, that we get through this.”

“I decided I’m a strong person,” said Mildred Feldstein, 93, who lives in the Lester Senior Housing Community in Whippany. Photo Courtesy Debbie Levine

Mildred Feldstein, 93, who lives in The Margaret & Martin Heller Independent Living Apartments in Whippany, part of JCHC, misses the daily activities and dinners when she would spend an hour with other residents. Now, she said, the hallways and card room are empty, and there is no congregating in the lobby.

“You have to figure out how to keep your mind open,” she said. Feldstein reads, emails friends, cleans her apartment, and does her laundry, and she volunteers in the building’s country store four hours a week. She also participates in the community’s lectures and exercise classes offered over the phone.

Her positive attitude is no accident.

“I decided I’m a strong person,” she said with a chuckle. That truth is confirmed by her life story: She graduated City College of New York with a degree in accounting and became a CPA at a time when women were not welcome in the field. She worked for accounting firms throughout her life — including while Feldstein was raising kids, when she said they sent work home for her.

“I was the original homebound employee,” she said.

Separation tough on the family

Doris B. Katz, 90, lives at Winchester Gardens, a retirement community in Maplewood. She left her home in Queens in 2018 to be near her daughter and son-in-law, Tracy and Fred Levine of Millburn, and their two college-aged children.

Before the novel coronavirus, Levine would normally see her mother once or twice a week — they’d run errands, grab a meal, or see a show. “Just spending time together has been a pillar of life for her,” said Levine. Now, the situation is challenging; they haven’t seen each other in person in weeks.

“I do feel depressed and lonely, but everybody else does in this crazy world we’re in now,” said Katz. “It’s such a frightening thing.”

And although there are “no [communal] meals, and no activities, and no socializing” at Winchester Gardens, she insisted that she can take care of herself.

“Doris gets along with Doris, and that’s the key,” Katz said, explaining that she is content with herself and is not looking for new relationships at this stage of her life, so being alone and not leaving her room is not so terrible. She watches what she calls “garbage television” when she wants to unwind, and also spends time reading the newspaper and talking on the phone.

She called her daughter and son-in-law “my rocks,” and added that the “real prize is my grandchildren.” Recently Levine set up Wi-Fi, an iPad, and Zoom for her so they could be together, virtually, while lighting Shabbat candles.

Katz offers a brave, even tough façade. An only child, she described having to verbally defend herself against other kids who called her names on the playground. She made a career for herself on the business side of television, worked until the day she gave birth, and then, instead of taking the six-month leave she had planned, went back to work when Tracy, her only child, was just 2 months old. “I was a little bored,” she said of being home with an infant.

Doris B. Katz, at right, celebrates in January her 90th birthday with daughter Tracy Levine.

In spite of her mother’s resiliency, Levine worries that Katz isn’t eating enough or remembering to stay in her room. She also frets that her mom’s days are unstructured, and that “she’s very bored.” Although the Levines considered having Katz move in with them, they are concerned her exposure to them will get her sick.

“I think the hardest thing is understanding the risks,” said Levine. “I really want to see her — is there a way I could see her or have her come outside and we see each other from a distance? But again, what’s the risk of her coming out of her apartment and coming down in the elevator and coming through the lobby?”

Levine joined an online caregiver support group through Winchester, and she said that at least she can see her mother over Zoom. Even so, she said, “I just want to have more shared time together.”

Keeping seniors mentally active

JCHC executive director Harold Colton-Max said the emphasis of JCHC has been on measures to keep residents physically healthy, from increasing cleanings to prohibiting all outside visitors (except home health aides) from the buildings. Among all the JCHC buildings, only residents of Lester Senior Housing Community in Whippany — which includes Weston Assisted Living Residence and Heller Independent Living — have tested positive for Covid-19, and the number of cases is limited: Beginning in mid-March, nine residents of Weston Assisted Living Residence tested positive, seven died, and two recovered. Among the Weston staff, nine tested positive and all recovered and have since returned to work, according to Colton-Max. When he spoke with NJJN in mid-May, just one resident in Heller Independent Living — who has since recovered — had tested positive. The last positive test among staff or residents occurred in mid-April, Colton-Max said. “To the best of our knowledge, no other residents tested positive” after that.

Colton-Max said he is concerned by the challenges the pandemic poses to healthy residents.

“Social isolation is a very serious concern, and there’s a clear connection between people’s mental state and their physical well-being,” he said. “And isolation tends to make that worse.”

To address the isolation, JCHC has developed what they are calling the “Friendly Callers Program,” in which volunteers call seniors who have requested the service. He hopes the calls might not only lift spirits and provide connections, but also lead to relationships that last beyond the current crisis. So far, about 50 community members have been making calls, including some Russian speakers. In addition, residents have received a variety of resources and things to keep themselves busy, from crossword puzzles to adult coloring pages.

The stay-at-home orders are “particularly difficult” for seniors who are uncomfortable utilizing smartphones or iPads to interact with loved ones, according to Amanda Kielbania, a licensed clinical social worker who works with older adults at Jewish Family Service of MetroWest NJ. She estimates that 50-60 percent of her clients are using Zoom.

She offered some suggestions for keeping loneliness at bay: For those who can Zoom, she suggested getting in touch with JFS to join one of their groups (email or call Daphne Berkovits, coordinator of group services, at 973-765-9050, ext. 1758). For others, Kielbania recommends trying to stay connected to family and friends via telephone; having local libraries deliver books when possible; doing puzzles; and limiting news intake. “Watching the news constantly can really be a trigger for so many people,” she said.

But she also acknowledged that for seniors, there is still a looming question, more relevant to them than anyone else.

“They’re wondering, is there ever going to be a point in my life when things are normal again?”

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