A pair of retirees weigh in on social isolation among South Carolina seniors
Ginny Cartee used to have a couple hundred people (kids included) wherever she needed them to be.
“I was literally in a position where I could un unload 500 kids from a bus, with teachers on every bus, and not even say a word,” Cartee says. “Just point where I want them to go.”
And then she ran into some health problems that compelled her to retire earlier than she would have liked.
“I went from 600 to zero,” she says. From highly engaged school administration worker to “being a shut-in that my kids and my husband checked in on during the day.”
Now 70, the Laurens resident has embraced volunteer work as a way to stay socially connected and to help others stave off what can, no hyperbole, be a terrifying emptiness for older adults. Having been cut off from the life she’d known – from the career she’d so defined herself by – gave Cartee a new perspective on how quickly social isolation can set in for seniors, especially in rural communities like Laurens.
“I live in the City of Laurens,” Cartee says. “We have a recreation department and a YMCA that most people can get to. But our school district serves six small communities around Laurens, and those folks have very limited resources.”
Technology, transportation, and mobility issues can also squash seniors’ ability to get to social services or recreation.
“There are organizations in every county of our state that serve older adults and that have programs,” says Maya Pack, executive director of the South Carolina Institute of Medicine and Public Health, or IMPH. “Some … are focused on social connection. There are also programs that can help provide transportation, which is oftentimes a barrier to social connection. If you're not able to drive anymore or you don't have a vehicle and you live somewhere where there's not public transportation, that makes it just that much more difficult to participate in those activities.”
- The federal Administration for Community Living’s Eldercare Locator can point you towards services and programs based in and near your city. This includes support services, in-home resources, and community services.
IMPH last week released an in-depth report on what isolation among older South Carolinians really looks like. You can find a breakdown of the report here, but in a nutshell, the report is part of a push by IMPH to bring more attention to isolation as a factor in seniors’ mental and physical health.
The National Institutes of Health lists a series of health issues that can come from isolation, including high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, weakened immunity, and cognitive diseases.
“People who are lonely or socially isolated may get too little exercise, drink too much alcohol, smoke, and often don’t sleep well, which can further increase the risk of serious health conditions,” according to NIH. “Also, little social activity and being alone most of the time may contribute to a decline in the ability to perform everyday tasks such as driving, paying bills, taking medicine, and cooking.”
But even for people with a lot of social engagement, it’s easy to get cut off. This is what happened to Ken Baxter, a retired teacher and former school board member in Greenville.
The COVID pandemic cut Baxter off from his rich social life, playing golf with friends, attending board and church meetings, spending time with his wife, and delivering Meals On Wheels to seniors once a week.
After his wife got COVID and had to keep her distance, after his golf and church friends were no longer in his physical presence, Baxter. 74, found out how important people were to him.
“I took a lot of stuff for granted because I was around a lot of people all the time,” he says. Zoom replaced in-presence company, and “that's when I really realized people are very, very important to me.”
He realized something else, too, on his Meals On Wheels runs.
“When I get to [a] person's house, they’re at the front porch,” he says. “They talk to me the whole time I'm coming up to their steps, the whole time I'm laying the package down, they walk me back to my car, talking to me.”
And it hit him that he might be the only human connection those folks made that day.
“After I figured that out, I take my time,” Baxter says. “I talk to them. It just made my heart do flip flops knowing that people wanted to see me that much to talk to me because they wanted that human contact.”