By Erica Hellerstein, Mercury News

040320CalMattersSeniorsFor the past few weeks, as coronavirus radically altered daily life, 79-year-old Diana Fernandes has been struggling quietly inside her San Francisco home, weathering a challenge from within.

Fernandes lives alone — her husband died in 2017 — and has been left to manage a painful foot injury and the threat of the virus on her own. As an asthmatic, she is already in a higher risk category so she has been avoiding contact with people. She hasn’t seen another person since March 14.

She misses watering her plants outside and shopping at Trader Joe’s for her favorite foods: apricots, figs, English muffins, mozzarella and sun-dried tomatoes. Now, she’s relying on regular deliveries from Meals on Wheels for food.

“I have to live with what I can,” said Fernandes over the phone from her home. “It would be nice to have someone to take care of me but it is expensive so not to worry. I do my best.”

Fernandes is among the millions of elderly Californians who live alone amid a strange new reality imposed by the coronavirus. Confined indoors, they are safer from the threat of the virus, but increasingly vulnerable to isolation, fear and anxiety as their connections to the outside world shut down. Friends and volunteers can’t visit, and most senior centers are closed.

(Image: Food bank volunteer Betty Kimmel wears a protective mask as she hands out oranges to seniors at Teamsters 315 Hall in Martinez on March 19, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters)

Already, social service providers are fielding heart-breaking calls from seniors, alone, hungry, some disabled and without the financial or community support needed to get through a lockdown with no end in sight.

“One elder called and said, ‘Am I going to die?’ That was how she opened her conversation with me,” said Cathy Michalec, executive director of Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly San Francisco, a nonprofit aimed at reducing senior isolation that is sending care kits to elderly residents. “Seniors are isolated always. I think for some seniors really it just amplified the fact that they are alone.”

Experts say isolation can pose a significant risk to seniors. Statewide, there are about 5.7 million Californians over the age of 65, according to the California Department of Aging. Roughly one-fifth live alone.

“Nutrition and isolation are two of our top concerns right now,” said California Department of Aging director Kim McCoy Wade. “If I have one message, it’s for us all to be checking in on each other. Somebody you might not have called last week or two weeks ago, call them now.”

Sally, a San Francisco 80-year-old who asked to be identified by her first name only, spends so much time on the phone now she sometimes feels “like a teenager.” But the daily calls that have become a staple of her quarantine can’t replace the face-to-face interactions with friends that were part of her life before the virus swept through the Bay Area.

“I didn’t know what an extrovert I was,” she said. “I always thought I was an introvert. But I’m not. I really miss my friends. I had a really good life before, I didn’t realize it. Now I feel like I’m a prisoner.”

As she struggles to cope with the isolation imposed by the virus, she has a growing list of worries: running low on food and supplies: declining physical and mental health; missing out on exercise and walks that were a part of her routine; and of course, contracting the virus. She takes her temperature every morning.

Still, she has found some bright spots. She is a poet and recently hosted a reading over the phone for about 15 people — an event she said was a “big success.” She’s also making sure to catalog her experiences and hopes to submit them to a local library’s archive.

Social service agencies, nonprofits and volunteers who work with seniors are also scrambling to adapt as more older people seek food and emotional support. With tens of thousands of home-bound seniors across the Bay Area, local service providers are seeing two patterns play out at once. The first is a spike in need among seniors who may not have previously required help from food relief organizations. The second is a declining number of volunteers, particularly at local food banks and Meals on Wheels chapters, where a significant portion of the volunteer base is over 65.

On a typical day, Contra Costa County’s Meals on Wheels program serves about 2,300 meals to home-bound seniors and people in senior living centers. That’s already grown to 2,800 meals daily. Santa Clara County’s Health Trust Meals on Wheels program has more than doubled its weekly meal distribution, too, and seen a jump in the number of people calling for help, said director Teresa Johnson.

But even as the need for support rises, visitation and activity programs have been cut by shelter-in-place orders. Brendon Coates, 37, a volunteer with Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly-San Francisco, can’t see the senior he has been visiting twice a month since 2018. Usually, when Coates stops by, they talk about old Hollywood movies and swap sugar-free chocolates. Coates has been calling regularly and checking in, but said he does sometimes worry about how his older friend is doing, isolated and with no family nearby.

Phone lines and DIY volunteer groups that have sprung up to help Bay Area seniors have also seen a flood of calls. Paige Wheeler Fleury, who helped found the volunteer-led Oakland at Risk website, which connects healthy young people in Alameda County with seniors and other-high risk community members who need help with groceries, supplies, or phone check-ins, described “heartbreaking” situations: a 94-year-old disabled woman with no friends or family members who doesn’t have money for food; a blind man in his late ‘70s who has no microwave, refrigerator, or stove and relied on a now-closed senior center for daily meals, with no money until April 1.

“He called us about three times and said, ‘I’m hungry and I have no one to help me.’ It was pretty emotional when I spoke to him,” she said. The group was able to send out an emergency delivery of food, but Wheeler Fleury said she is short on sign-ups for volunteers in his area — Oakland’s San Antonio neighborhood — who could continue to help get him groceries.

Dr. Patrick Arbore, an expert in elderly suicide prevention and isolation and founder of the San Francisco-based Friendship Line, a crisis intervention and support phone hotline for seniors and people with disabilities, said the line has seen an uptick in calls as seniors navigate theloneliness of coronavirus. He recommends people who live in buildings with seniors slip the 800 971-0016 phone number of the Friendship line — which serves people across California — under their doors.

“It can be a life-sustaining link for them,” he says. “It’s a very stressful time and when I talk to older people over a period of six hours as I did today and I hear them, I hear the fear. They will say, ‘I’m scared.’ And their routines are just totally altered. And that’s the thing that I can hear is that they’re alone.”

Erica Hellerstein is a reporter with the Mercury News. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

Pin it

NorCal News

  • Screen Shot 2021 04 14 at 5.52.45 PM
    April 15, 2021

    As vaccine eligibility opens, hesitation is the next hurdle

    As of today, all adults in Sonoma County are eligible to sign up for the COVID-19 vaccine, but there’s still a lot of hesitancy about whether to get the shot. Sonoma County has successfully vaccinated 36 percent of the adult population, and is surpassing other counties of similar size. But vaccine…
  • injection 5722329 640
    April 14, 2021

    J&J pause slows down vaccinations of vulnerable residents

    Because the new J&J vaccine didn’t arrive in the county until March, so far it only makes up about three percent of those administered. But the single-dose vaccine has been important in getting shots to unsheltered and homebound folks. Now, a few hundreds of doses intended for those hard-to-reach…
  • Default Image
    April 13, 2021

    Businesses have more options in orange tier

    After spending six months stuck in the state's most restrictive purple tier, Sonoma joined the majority of the Bay Area in the second least restrictive orange tier last week because of low COVID numbers in the county. Being in the orange tier means COVID spread is moderate and businesses can…
  • April 12, 2021

    Windsor mayor under sex-crimes cloud

    Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli is refusing to step down despite sex-crime allegations from half a dozen women, including a fellow city council member. An increasingly isolated Foppoli is rejecting calls to resign from just about every North Bay political leader after accusations emerged late last…
    April 07, 2021

    Sonoma County enters orange tier

    Sonoma County's virtual community COVID-19 briefing.Less than a month after moving out of the state’s most restrictive purple tier, the County made it into the more relaxed orange tier Wednesday. The announcement comes a day after Governor Gavin Newsom announced the state’s aim to fully open up the…
  • IMG 7932 3
    April 06, 2021

    Health Fair vaccinates hundreds of residents

    Art about the COVID-19 vaccine by Santa Rosa art nonprofit Raizes Collective at the Cesar Chavez Health Fair. People waited in line starting at 9 a.m. to get one of the 200 Moderna vaccines given out at last weekend’s Cesar Chavez Health Fair in Santa Rosa’s Martin Luther King Jr, park. The event,…
  • Document
    Apr 01, 2021

    Santa Rosa hands out weather radios to boost alert system

    A NOAA Weather Radio. (photo courtesy of the City of Santa Rosa's website)Santa Rosa is boosting its ability to notify residents when a fire breaks…
  • Screen Shot 2021 03 31 at 10.19.40 AM
    Mar 31, 2021

    Sonoma County teens design quarantine mural

    Santa Rosa-based art organization Artstart's Shelter in Place Mural. (photo courtesy of Jennifer Tatum). COVID has affected everyone, old and young.…
  • covid 19 4987797 1280
    Mar 29, 2021

    COVID-19 easing, while vaccine distribution hits bottleneck

    By Marc Albert Improving data suggests vaccines are gaining the upper hand and COVID-19 related restrictions across Sonoma County may be eased as…
  • Screen Shot 2021 03 24 at 5.08.32 PM
    Mar 24, 2021

    New Data Shows an Uptick in Fatal Drug Overdoses

    COVID-19 numbers are on the decline after Sonoma County moved into the state’s red tier a week and a half ago, but communities are facing other types…
  • kelp 966305 640
    Mar 19, 2021

    Abalone season cancelled, at least until 2026

    By Marc Albert With wild abalone populations decimated by a string of environmental setbacks, besides over-fishing. State officials reiterated Friday…
  • grass
    Mar 19, 2021

    Sonoma likely facing challenging drought

    One of the driest winters on record locally, may cause serious water issues this summerBy Marc Albert The rainy season has hardly been generous.…
  • 031721 SC briefing1
    Mar 17, 2021

    Sonoma County schools planning April return to campus

    About 70,000 school students across Sonoma County are heading back to classrooms in April. So far, 47 schools across Sonoma County have the green…
  • covid 19 4960254 640 1
    Mar 12, 2021

    Covid Restrictions to Ease Sunday

    As predicted, declining new COVID-19 infections and other metrics will allow Sonoma County to ease pandemic-related restrictions this weekend. KRCB's…
  • IMG 1289
    Mar 12, 2021

    The Power of Art for Vaccine Outreach

    Advocates, artists, healthcare professionals and residents gathered in Santa Rosa's Roseland Neighborhood on Valentines Day to showcase and pass out…
  • coronavirus 4957673 1280
    Mar 10, 2021

    Some COVID-19 restrictions may be lifted as soon as Sunday

    By Marc Albert Sonoma County is on the brink of being able to lift some pandemic-related restrictions….as soon as this weekend. That could mean…

NorCal News Radio

Northern California
Public Media Newsletter

Get the latest updates on programs and events.