When the pandemic began, the Chicago-based organization Little Brothers Friends of The Elderly’s goal was to combat the issue of loneliness in the elderly community, as the coronavirus pandemic forced shutdowns and quarantines, intensifying the isolation and loneliness faced by many elderly in Chicago.
The elderly in the program experienced both group events with the staff and other elders, alongside visits to their homes. For many of these elders, their socialization consisted of visits by volunteers. Although the virus cases have continued to gradually lower in Chicago, and the distribution of vaccines has increased, Little Brothers program coordinator Mary Granados stated that a transition to in-person socialization is not being considered for the safety of the elderly.
“Before the pandemic, I would often go to their homes to visit them and talk about many things. Our topics would be about anything they wanted to talk about, whether it was the news, a new movie, or their health,” Granados wrote in an email. “I would also take the elders out to eat at restaurants or to the lake sometimes for a picnic, and to the movie theater, casino, or shopping. Doing all of these things allowed us to build a close relationship and become their friends. It relieved seclusion and solitude among our seniors.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Little Brothers were quick to cancel any risky activities for both the elders and the staff, as well quickly adopting a temporary strategy to maintain contact with its elders.
“Now, with the pandemic, my duties have changed and we only talk to elders on the phone to reduce the risk of the elders getting sick,” she said. “Occasionally, we plan events where we can go and see the elders outside of their homes and deliver little gift bags with goodies and activities for them to do in their homes.”
Despite in-person socialization being replaced with frequent phone calls, many elders like Maria Vasquez remain grateful for the substitute socialization. Mrs. Vasquez has been a part of the program for 10 years, stating that “Whenever I’m brought [gift bags], they will still have time to talk to me. God bless them, they have the character to volunteer and do it with affection,” she said.
“The elders spend a lot of time in their home. Most of the time it’s just them, unless they’re living with their spouse,” Granados said. “Just getting that one phone call every week, it really makes a difference since they’re hearing from someone else and are able to open up, share what they’re feeling and just be distracted, as it causes a lot of stress for them to be in their home.”
Many of the elders still ask Granados when in-person interactions will return, leaving Granados to give a reserved response. “When it’s safe.
“So far, there is not a set plan as to when we will begin to have events for the seniors, but we want to make sure that before we plan any event that the seniors that want to get vaccinated have the opportunity to get vaccinated,” she said. “We don’t want to organize an in-person event and have an elder not be able to attend because they don’t feel comfortable since they don’t have a vaccine yet.”
Optimism On The Other End
During the first summer of the coronavirus pandemic, many elders made the decision to remain inside. Solano, who lives in Little Village, found her chances to enjoy being outside limited.
“I still must be careful; I still notice people don’t wear masks. And the ones that don’t have it properly on, they have it all the way down on their necks,” she said, “I can’t even say anything, or they’ll get upset. At least they finally placed lines in the stores and pharmacy for us to keep our distance.”
Although many are taking precautions, some seniors are becoming emboldened to break the cycle of quarantine.
“I’m not afraid. I’m a little vain. I’ve been having my hair changed before and now they told me I couldn’t go for weeks to the hairdresser,” Solano said. “I looked like a mess. I asked if you could please trim my hair. It’s my birthday and they gave it to me. I always want to look presentable.”
Outside of the organization, elders like Macias begin to feel comfortable interacting with other friends and breaking the cycle of isolation in quarantine.
“I still talk to my friends from when I lived in Pilsen, people from my family who live out of state. I’ll ask someone for a ride around if I need it, like to the doctor’s office,” said Macias. “I still walk around with my neighbor, and we’ll sometimes watch a Spanish soap opera. I’ll tell her if she needs her clothes cleaned, I’ll take them to the laundromat with me, and return with her clothes and a little meal.”
Mrs. Vasquez, although homebound and unable to travel often on her own, has maintained her own happiness.
“I don’t ever feel alone because I know that God is with us. Depression I never feel because I’m always reading and will read the Bible. Besides, if we pay attention to the Bible, we have more viruses to come our ways,” she laughs.
Little Brothers is satisfied that despite the complications in returning to in-person events, both the phone calls and the lives of the elderly have continued to flourish.
“They take care of us with respect,” Macias said. “It’s almost like we’re treated like their children, that’s how much they care about us. Back then they took us out to shop, eat, take us out on the boat. It was great. I hope it returns one day; it was such a beautiful experience.”
Header image by Yusra Shah