Instead of meeting with friends over lunch, Marv Lofquist now goes online to chat with a half-dozen men who also have memory loss, taking comfort in sharing similar experiences while safely apart.
"Humans are social beings," Lofquist, 77, said from his Golden Valley home — via Zoom. "It's important to use the functionality that I have maintained instead of isolating … like talking to people."
The Alzheimer's Association, which organizes dementia support groups, has boosted online services to combat isolation during the pandemic. Other Minnesota nonprofits that serve seniors are doing the same, shifting senior center activities online, teaching older adults how to navigate FaceTime and Zoom, and recruiting volunteers to call seniors for informal chats.
It's all part of a concerted effort to keep seniors active and show that someone cares during a tough winter.
"We all suffer from [loneliness]," said James Falvey, executive director of Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly. "We want to really break down those barriers."
Isolation has emerged as a second crisis in the pandemic for people of all ages, but especially for older adults during the holiday season. Since June, social isolation or "isolation due to COVID-19 conditions" has been a factor in deaths of at least 12 seniors, according to a Star Tribune analysis of death certificate records.
The state has restricted social gatherings of more than 10 people indoors until Jan. 11 due to surging coronavirus cases, but even without state rules, many older adults would hunker down to avoid the virus, which can be deadlier for older residents.
So nonprofits like Falvey's are trying to bring new connections and hope. Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly has expanded statewide for the first time this year, training volunteers to call and check in with older adults. The Minneapolis-based organization is also delivering holiday packages to seniors and unveiling a statewide phone line in 2021 that adults 60 and older can call for an informal chat.
The Jewish Family Service of St. Paul started a similar program with free phone calls from volunteers to seniors in long-term care facilities. The organization also is delivering holiday gifts and cards to isolated seniors and calls or sends gifts to Russian-speaking Holocaust survivors.
"Not only are we serving our seniors, but our volunteers really want to do something for someone," said Jodi Saltzman, the nonprofit's community engagement manager. "It's just nice to have … a new relationship to connect with."
'Difficult being alone'
In Minnetonka, Senior Community Services, which helps older adults continue to live independently, found that 95% of their clients own a computer, tablet or smartphone, but many didn't know how to use apps.
This summer, the nonprofit launched a pilot program to teach clients in the west metro and in Wright County how to navigate FaceTime, set up Hulu or tap into online grocery delivery services. One woman wanted to access Zoom for a Thanksgiving celebration while an 85-year-old man wanted to learn how to text on his first cellphone to stay in touch with friends.
Joe Kaul stopped by Sharon McDonald's home in St. Michael recently, wearing a mask and staying at a safe distance, to give her a tutorial on Zoom so she could attend meetings at her senior center or connect with friends and family out of state. It's hard living alone since her husband died, she said, but especially now in the winter during a pandemic, unable to even mingle with neighbors outside.
"It's difficult being alone at a time like this," McDonald, 78, said. "I just wouldn't have been able to do a lot of things without this program."
A 'lifeline' to connect
Senior Community Services has also shifted programs online at its senior centers in the metro and in St. Michael and is adding iPads to each center for visitors to borrow or play cards on. CEO Deb Taylor said people of all ages feel more alone during the pandemic, which is likely why the organization has had the number of users double on its website, CareNextion.org, which helps families coordinate care.
"This really gives people … a lens into what it might be like for older adults living in isolation and hopefully bringing into the forefront some compassion," she said.
Like so many Americans, Lofquist now spends a lot of time on Zoom, FaceTime and other virtual platforms — from his dementia support group to choir practice and the family's Thanksgiving celebration. The retired college administrator said the virtual socializing keeps his mind active.
"It feels like a lifeline for people with dementia," added his wife, Elaine Lofquist.
Farther reach online
Shifting support groups online makes them more accessible for people who live farther away, said Woo Bandel, who organizes the groups with the Minnesota and North Dakota chapter of the Alzheimer's Association, which has also moved educational programs online and started a virtual support group for caregivers of loved ones in long-term care facilities. They'll keep a virtual option post-pandemic.
"It gives people an opportunity to not feel alone," she said. "Everyone in that virtual room can truly empathize with those challenges."
In Golden Valley, the Lofquists are preparing for another quiet holiday at home together. No extended family visits, no dressing up for parties, no dinners out. But the virtual versions are better than nothing, Marv Lofquist said.
"It's a great alternative," he added. "You shouldn't have [a pandemic] without Zoom."
Staff writer Chris Serres contributed to this report.