As health officials clamp down on social interactions to contain the coronavirus, some seniors who lead active lives find the restrictions are taking a toll.
“Things that we look forward to have been changed a great deal,” said Gail Gould, 74, who has been retired for five years. On Wednesday, Gould and her husband, Bill, were supposed to fly to California to visit their daughter and two grandchildren — a much anticipated trip they had to postpone.
During normal times, she and her husband would travel between their home in Calais and their camp in New Brunswick, but concerns over the pandemic have halted their usual trips.
But her daily routine is mostly the same, Gould said.
Not being able to go out in public as usual has some people feeling more limited, but the social distancing practice has given a way for retired people to learn new methods to stay in touch with family and friends.
Truman Bitely has been retired for 14 years. He and his wife live a 12-minute drive from their son and grandchildren in Belfast, but lately they’ve had to keep their distance.
They’re trying to limit physical interactions with their neighbors, too, but still check on them by phone. “We’re not socializing, to be on the safe side.”
The pandemic hasn’t stopped the couple from seeing their grandchildren, either, who they video chat with every few days. “It’s not like we’re totally isolated from them,” Bitely said.
When alarm bells started ringing about the virus, their son Chris began picking up groceries for the couple during his shopping trips. He handed their grocery bags to them while wearing a balaclava over his face.
While people typically have time to settle into a new lifestyle after retirement, the pandemic has shocked some working people who are unsure of how to navigate these new circumstances.
Harpswell resident Debora Norton said that for her parents, life is not so out of the ordinary but for herself, social distancing has been difficult. “They are used to being home with one another for company. I am not used to that. I see other adults every day,” she said.
Being away from her job as a preschool teacher has left Norton feeling unlike herself, too.
“Mentally, it is a strain,” she said. “I am used to seeing people every day. I have found that at age 60, my patience is wearing thin. Like little things are bothering me much more than they did in the recent past.
“It’s hard to go from being productive, to the opposite,” she said.
Around the state, older people are trying to redirect this static energy into helping others.
Limited by temporary shutdowns, senior program volunteers with the University of Maine Center on Aging are trying out new ways to stay connected to one another. About 14 percent of the volunteers are still actively volunteering in other ways, said Paula Burnett, coordinator for the center’s retired senior volunteer program.
The program, which operates in Piscataquis, Hancock, Washington and Penobscot counties, is focused on people aged 55 and older who want to help other senior citizens.
Even though they cannot be together in person, volunteers with the program’s signature class called Bone Builders — which helps seniors with strength training — are still checking up on their participants and coaching them over the phone.
But some volunteers and program coordinators have noted the challenge of being physically separated from each other. “Some definitely miss it,” Burnett said.
Volunteers in the center’s senior companionship program have also felt the impact of being away from their clients, who they would normally visit in their homes on a regular basis. The program connects volunteers with people who need companionship or respite care — both of which have been suspended for the time being.
Volunteers call their clients to check up on them from a distance while they cannot interact with one another in person. “This is all new territory for everybody,” said Donald Lynch, director of the center’s senior companionship program.
For participants and volunteers, these programs don’t just offer physical benefits — it’s also a chance to interact and engage with each other.
Baby boomers are especially active, Burnett added, which is why the center is trying to come up with alternative ways they can keep volunteering. For those stuck at home, Burnett encouraged staying active to take the edge off anxiety by walking with a neighbor — 6 feet apart.
She said older people should also take advantage of technology to keep in touch with loved ones, adding that they should look for ways to stay connected, even if it’s just with nature.
“It’s all about connectedness — that to me is a survival [tactic].”
The National Digital Equity Center based in Machias offers free classes for anyone who wants to learn how to use technology better — either for older adults who are self-isolating at home and want to engage with family and friends digitally, or people still in the workforce learning to work from home.
The center has moved many of their classes online, in which people can learn to navigate video chats, Microsoft programs, social media and more. While about 60 percent of students in these programs are 55 or older, classes are for “anyone who needs help,” said Susan Corbett, the center’s director.
People can sign up for classes or take a class interest survey at digitalequitycenter.org/digital-literacy or get more information by calling 207-259-5010.
Watch: What older adults need to know about COVID-19