Central Wisconsin program helps safely break barrier of isolation for older adults

Published: Dec. 29, 2020 at 6:42 PM CST
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MARATHON COUNTY, Wis. (WSAW) - Many of us won’t see much of our families this winter to keep them safe from the pandemic. For older adults, it means a loss of connection that can lead to social isolation.

The United Way of Marathon County and the Aging and Disability Resource Center are connecting seniors in central Wisconsin with volunteers to check in on them.

Volunteers in the Community Connection Calls program are connected with someone to check on once a week with a phone call. The ADRC wants to break a barrier of isolation they’re seeing with many older adults right now.

“Social isolation and loneliness, especially among seniors, is growing,” said Erin Wells, community resources manager for the ADRC of Central Wisconsin.

Wells explains seniors may be feeling lonely because they’re taking COVID-19 precautions. But social isolation is more than just a feeling.

“Social isolation is the reduction and kind of that ‘alone’ part you think of, when you think of social isolation and being lonely,” she said.

CDC data shows 1 in 4 adults aged 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated. For many people who need human connection, this can lead to loneliness.

“Older adults are more at risk for feeling lonely because they tend to have fewer contacts. Some older adults, they’re more likely to live alone. And also hearing issues can make someone more at risk for feeling lonely,” Wells said.

She says it’s ramped up recently as the pandemic goes on. It’s especially hard, since many are isolated for their own safety.

“I think families are doing the best they can to reduce the risk to older adults they care for. And that is also causing some people not to see loved ones,” she said.

Being and feeling alone can hurt your health. The CDC says it can significantly increase the risk of early death in a way that rivals smoking and obesity. The agency says social isolation puts people at a 50% increased risk for dementia, 29% increased risk of heart disease and 31% increased risk of stroke.

“The 211 has been receiving many calls from people that are either concerned about COVID, or just lonely or anxious, or are having food needs,” said Krista Mischo, volunteer engagement coordinator for the United Way.

In Marathon County alone, 211 has gotten almost 900 calls asking for information or help related to COVID-19.

And calls are not just from seniors. That’s why the United Way is stepping in. The program with 211 is funded through the Medical College of Wisconsin. Background-checked and trained volunteers make the 15 to 30-minute phone calls. Those on the line can share as much or as little as they want.

“We knew that volunteers didn’t want to go out and be around people, but this was a perfect virtual way for them to connect through the telephone,” she said. “It kind of meets the needs of volunteers that are lonely and want a connection with people, and it also meets the needs of the people who want that friendly call from a volunteer.

And Wells says, staring down a cold winter, it’s a good time to check on the older adults in your life.

“Now is the time to step out. Do you have a loved one who is an older adult? Maybe it’s time to make sure that you’re making regular phone calls, checking in, does your neighbor need a little help right now?” she said.

Mischo says they have plenty of volunteers right now, but they’re looking for people who would like someone to check on them weekly and point them in the direction of any resources they need.

Adults of any age can call the United Way of Marathon County at 715-848-2927. The United Way also offers a Hopeline 24/7 texting service to help those struggling. You can text HOPELINE to 741741.

Anyone in need of more than a phone call a week can call the peer-run warmline 24/7 at 608-244-5077. It’s for people struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues.

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